Oh-so-French icon-cum-iconoclast Serge Gainsbourg finally gets the biopic he so richly deserves courtesy of French comic book artist Joann Sfar. Despite Gainsbourg’s legendary status in his native France, his celluloid enshrinement lags behind that of fellow singer Édith Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard in 2007’s La Vie En Rose).
Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928. In the film’s opening scene, the hand-holding advances of a preteen Gainsbourg (Kacey Mottet Klein) are rejected by a young girl who deems him “too ugly.” The boy finds solace from the romantic rejection in—what else?—an abandoned cigarette butt. Segueing into a stylish, cartoon-animated credit sequence, this opening scene deftly sums up the character and props of our protagonist. Not that the adult Gainsbourg had any trouble with the ladies, legendarily seducing a string of Europe’s hottest female stars. But Sfar is concerned with the man behind the famous face and spends much of the film filling in details of the performer’s early life.
War soon breaks out in Europe, and the fiercely Jewish Gainsbourg shows his true stripes by stepping proudly to the front of the Nazis’ line and becoming the first to get his yellow star. On the way home, however, he’s confronted with an anti-Semitic propaganda poster featuring a hideous caricature of a Jew. Under Sfar’s imaginative hand, the poster comes to life and becomes “The Face”—a gigantic, Humpty Dumpty-esque puppet fleshed out by actor Doug Jones, who gave us such memorable specters as the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Gentlemen in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Throughout his life, Gainsbourg is haunted by this creature, a personification of his deep-seated self-doubt.
And yet, Gainsbourg overcomes—with a mixture of talent and outward bravado—to become one of the most infamous pop stars in French history. Played as an adult by Eric Elmosnino (whose big-nosed, jug-eared embodiment of Gainsbourg won him a César Award), our protagonist is soon taking the music world by storm and bedding an unmatched string of beauties. There’s fellow art student and future wife Elisabeth Levitsky (Deborah Grall), singer Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), cinematic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and long-term love Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Here, Elmosnino not only exhibits an acute physical resemblance to the late star, but also nails the rumpled machismo that made him such a magnetic figure.
Sfar isn’t afraid to touch on his subject’s darker moments: His alcoholism, his endless affairs, his button-pushing public behavior. But it’s not the tabloid headlines that attracted the filmmaker to this project. Clearly, it’s the artistic sensibilities of the man at the heart of it all that cause Sfar to label his life “heroic.” (Viewers are free to render their own judgments.) Just as clearly, it’s Sfar’s flights of fancy that separate A Heroic Life from your average, ordinary biopic. Floating somewhere between the fanciful, head-trippy realms of Terry Gilliam and Federico Fellini, Sfar crafts a film that is both grounded and imaginative. As a graphic novelist, Sfar isn’t well known in America. A handful of his books have been translated for stateside audiences (The Rabbi’s Cat, Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East) revealing a strong connection to his Jewish heritage. That’s a big element here as well, particularly in the film’s earlier sequences.
If there’s a failing, however, it’s that the script is too episodic—jumping from moment to moment to drive home a point, but establishing little rhythm and arguably less depth than a traditional biopic. But then, Sfar is admittedly not interested in the tedious day-to-day realities of life. He subtitles the film “Un Conte de Joann Sfar” or “A Fairy Tale by Joann Sfar.” And in that, he succeeds wildly, giving us a brightly colored, puppet-filled, sexy-muse-littered story that is as recklessly ambitious as its subject.