Movie Review: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

I guarantee you this will be the most entertaining biopic you ever spend two hours on. The film is a glimpse at the life and mind of Serge Gainsbourg, birth name Lucien Ginsburg. The French-Jewish singer and painter grew up in Nazi-occupied France and wearing that yellow star had a huge part in shaping the scandalous philanderer he was. Eric Elmosnino plays Serge with an uncanny likeness to his physical looks and pulls off the attitude of the singer brilliantly. Serge never goes more than two minutes in the film without lighting up or continuing to puff at a cigarette which fills the film with a smoldering glare that leaves the audience contemplating on picking up the habit. Even more reason to consider it are the women that frequented Gainsbourg’s life. With famous beauties like Juliette Gréco, Brigette Bardot and Jane Birkin, female nudity was never lacking in the film.

The entertainment in this film comes in the form of puppetry. Gainsbourg’s conscience takes the Tyler Durden-esque form of a large-eared, large-nosed form of himself, called Mug. The introduction to Mug is by far the most impressive as we see the wild-eyed egg-shaped man peel himself out of a poster on the wall and begin to stalk young Gainsbourg. As he turns to realize that Mug is not here to harm but to imitate and keep company, Gainsbourg is immediately more confident.

As a young boy, between the times he spends avoiding the Nazis, he paints nude women and plays the piano. The film transitions quickly from decade to decade and soon enough, he is a grown man sleeping with the girlfriend of Salvador Dali, but not on his bed, he would never disrespect him like that. As he frolics from one woman to the next, children are born from these women and come and go throughout, he doesn’t seem to mind either way. By the time the 60’s passes, however, as it is portrayed that he is past his prime, the film feels just as stale. From the 60’s on it seems like a barrage of embarrassing tricks and media coverage of paparazzi fuel.

Some critics have spent time pointing out the inaccuracies in the film. Spending time whining about the history of Gainsbourg and the liberties the director took with the character in places. I would like to point out the little accuracies that helped to bring life to the film. Things like shooting a scene outside of Serge’s real apartment which is still covered in graffiti and poems to this day and that his daughter Charlotte still looks after. Another detail I quite liked was the dress that young Jane Birkin is seen wearing in her first scene. It  is a very lovely recreation of the longer version the real life Birkin can be seen wearing strolling the streets. Google it if you don’t believe me.

This is a musical of sorts. Not to say that you will sing along but because he was a legendary singer and songwriter, many of his biggest hits from each era are included in the film. Gainsbourg was a man that defied genres and generally played all of them throughout his lifetime. Watching the biopic and knowing nothing about the man can lead to some confusion about why he plays jazz piano when he is younger and transitions into reggae and to electronic synth in his later years. I suppose that just like his women, he tried hard not to become bored of music by changing it up.

The casting in this film was one of the bigger impressions the film left on me. Not only did they find fantastic talent to pull off the singing, acting and believable relationships, but most of the main parts looked nearly related to the parts they played. Brigette Bardot, played by Laetitia Casta was a spitting image of the bombshell of the sixties. Jane Birkin, played by the late Lucy Gordon only looked to be an updated version of herself, more applicable to the hipsters’ fashion of today. The most impressive, however, was Gainsbourg himself played by Elmosnino. From the profound baritone vocals to never going far without being consumed in smoke, the man was a perfect fit. Elmosnino even came prepared with his own unfortunate large nose and ears. His shortcomings never seemed to get in his way however, as he was seen with some of the decade’s most beautiful women. I guess it proves that talent does trump physical attributes.

The only faults that could be lain on writer/director Joann Sfar are the few moments in which time transcends and moments of clarity are lost on the viewer. The one that comes to mind shows a new child named Melody being looked upon by the thrown aside persona Mug and the screen turns blood red and time has just jumped forward to a new decade. Perhaps this was just Sfar’s way of paying homage to the stylistic 28 minute album of the same name, created when he was with Jane Birkin, shown as the mother of this young Melody.

The title, A Heroic Life may throw some off as well, as he seems to be far from heroic and really much more self involved. But it is in that narcissistic manner in which allowed him to do the things that society would deem uncouth that has set him aside as a legend and in that legend heroism lies. Either way, a quick way to remedy the confusion is to read up on the man quickly before engaging in his story on the screen. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is most definitely worth mulitple viewings.

I give Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life 4 “Controversial Lemon Zests” out of 5

by Angela Davis


About Angela

Angela is the Editor-in-Chief of Lost in Reviews. She and Ryan created Lost in Reviews together in 2009 out of a mutual hatred for all the stodgy old farts currently writing film reviews. Since launching the site, Angela has enjoyed reviewing indie films over all other films, picking up new music from all corners of the world and photographing live shows. She is the co-host of Blu Monday and a member of the Kansas City Film Critic Circle.

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