To the English-singing world, Serge Gainsbourg is something of a joke – known at best for his lascivious pop song ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, with its cheesy Hammond Organ and sleazy heavy-breathing, and for announcing to a startled Whitney Houston on live TV that he’d like to ‘feurck her’.
In his native France, Serge is revered. Almost 20 years after his death in 1991, he’s remembered as cult icon and iconoclast, national treasure and subversive rebel. Remembered and still adored.
French comic-book artist Joann Sfar is clearly a fan. Making his directing debut with the biopic Gainsbourg (subtitled Vie Héroïque or Heroic Life), he celebrates his subject’s impudence and flair – and displays those qualities in abundance himself.
Working from his own bande dessinée (graphic novel), Sfar begins by showing his hero as a cocky kid in Nazi-occupied Paris. The son of Russian-Jewish parents, the precocious young Lucien Ginsburg (his real name) radiates insolence, charm and juvenile bravado.
He is first in line to collect his yellow star, impresses music-hall singer Fréhel with his rendition of her risqué song ‘La Coco’, and blags his way into adult art classes, brazenly copping glances at the nude models.
Along the way, he picks up the alter ego that will accompany him for the rest of the film – a grotesquely big-nosed caricature of a Jew that steps off the wall from an anti-Semitic propaganda poster and, in a later incarnation, follows Lucien/Serge through his subsequent adventures as both confidant and provocateur.
Dubbed La Gueule, French slang for mug or face, this bizarre, marionette-like figure embodies the singer’s odd but potent mix of insecurity and confidence, doubt and assertiveness, self-loathing and pride.
These qualities fuel his success as artist and womaniser after he switches his attention from art to music as a young man.
Despite his ugly mug, he woos a succession of beautiful and famous women: bohemian icon Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), legendary sex symbol Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and, of course, his petite anglaise, English gamine Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), his partner on disc in 1969 for his biggest hit, ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’.
Before this, there are hits with teen singer France Gall (Sara Forestier), including the salacious ‘Les Sucettes’ (‘Lollipops’), duets with Bardot, notably the sublime ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (my favourite Serge song) and a first stab at ‘Je t’aime’ (its release scuppered by Bardot’s then husband).
With swaggering ease, he turns his hand to French chanson, jazz, pop, rock and even reggae (a reggae version of national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’ earns him death threats from right-wingers).
Yet, his last decade, after the departure of wife and muse Birkin in 1980, is one of drunken deterioration – a period on which the film fortunately doesn’t linger. (So no cameo for Whitney.)
At its best, like Serge himself, Sfar’s film is clever and flamboyant, provocative and stylish, but it is so bound up with its subject that when his life and career go into decline so does the film, and the final reel or so display a definite loss of energy and focus.
The performances are tremendous, though. Kacey Mottet Klein is ideal as the young Lucien, while Eric Elmosnino delivers an uncanny impersonation of the adult Serge. Casta is incandescently sexy as Bardot and Gordon gives touching depth to her – again uncannily accurate – portrayal of Birkin. Tragically, Gordon took her own life last year, shortly after completing the film.
On general release from 30th July.