First-time director Joann Sfar has said that he didn't want to make a straightforward biography about Serge Gainsbourg. So it's no surprise that Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life — which Sfar adapted from his own graphic novel — is less standard biopic and more a fantasia of the popular French singer and songwriter, who, as the movie tells it, was as well known for his debauchery as for his music.
Born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents in 1929, Gainsbourg grew up during the Nazi occupation of France, was forced to wear a yellow star, and, the movie suggests, was haunted for life by his Jewish identity.
Forced by his musician father to learn the piano, young Serge really wants to be an artist, and at art school he embraces the opportunity to paint naked ladies, setting the tone for future endeavors.
As a struggling painter in the 1950s, he supports himself by playing piano in bars. He gives up painting for music, changes his name to something less effete — and less Jewish — and discovers a talent for writing songs, especially ones with sardonic and sexual themes. He embarks on a prolific and varied career, moving from traditional French songs to jazz, pop, funk, rock, reggae, and even electronica in the '80s.
Played by Eric Elmosmino, Gainsbourg is an unattractive man, with ears perpetually prepared for takeoff. But once he becomes a popular songwriter, beautiful women flock to his bed, including Brigitte Bardot (Laititia Costa), with whom he has a passionate affair and records the original version of his biggest hit, "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus." (The song was considered shocking at the time of its release because of its female orgasmic moans.) Gainsbourg seems to relish scandalizing bourgeois values, from writing a suggestive song for a teen pop star to recording a reggae parody of the French national anthem.
After Bardot leaves him, Gainsbourg takes up with the young British actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), and they have two children during their 13-year relationship. His health deteriorates because of his constant drinking and smoking (without the endless cigarette drags, the movie would be about 20 minutes shorter), and he eventually settles down with a new ingénue. But the film stops short of Gainsbourg's provocative twilight years, during which he showed up onstage drunk, burned money to protest taxes, and told Whitney Houston that he would like to sleep with her during a live TV appearance.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is sporadically entertaining, but, true to its director's word, it doesn't really tell the story of Gainsbourg, who died in 1991. In the end, it's hard to imagine that the clever, versatile talent of Gainsbourg (who was also an actor, novelist, and film director) could possibly reside in the libidinous layabout portrayed in this movie.