Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is certainly one of the strangest biopics to ever be made, but that’s certainly not a bad thing. For starters, there’s that subtitle in the name which implies that the film will be a sort of hagiography, creating an epic out of Serge Gainsbourg’s life, and while the film’s certainly affectionate about its subject, any heroism will be left for the viewers to add. Gainsbourg isn’t a film about overcoming adversity; it’s about a man who made beautiful music, drank a lot and slept with many beautiful women, and so that’s what it’s interested in showing.
The accuracy of the film’s depiction of Gainsbourg is even somewhat irrelevant to what it’s trying to achieve. Adapted from a graphic novel by its director, Joann Sfar, Gainsbourg is less a retelling of its protagonist’s life than a series of vignettes about key moments, particularly those surrounding his music. Much of his life (entire marriages, for instances) are left out, but what is shown is wonderfully reimagined through Sfar’s whimsical version of history. Gainsbourg is given an alter-ego (or perhaps id) to explain many of his choices, a long-nosed character created by Gainsbourg under duress during WWII who cares only for the moment, and the two of them bounce from woman to woman while Gainsbourg effortlessly creates a series of timeless songs.
Eric Elmosnino’s performance as Gainsbourg is striking. In fact most of the film’s casting is great, but this isn’t the type of biopic where performances are particularly important—characters suddenly leave without ever being heard from again (in the same manner, Gainsbourg’s children seem to appear at random). No, the focus is on the music, and while very few of the film’s recordings are originals, what’s played is still remarkable. Occasionally Gainsbourg’s songs are just used as background material, but many of them receive what are for the most part full-on music video treatments. In essence the movie is a musical, where characters suddenly break into song, and the visual invention on display during these sections is tremendous. Sfar keeps every piece distinct and the most thrilling parts of the movie are just watching this simulacrum of Gainsbourg display his talent.
Beyond that the movie is pretty plotless, and in its second half begins to get bogged down because there’s only so many times Gainsbourg’s pursuit of another woman can be interesting. There’s also no real attempt at depth, but with a surface so fun it’s difficult to complain. Gainsbourg ends up questionable when it comes to actual biography, but it does a great job capturing the man’s spirit, which it’s hard not to believe Serge himself would find far more important.