Puppet Show

08.26.11

Joann Sfar, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, 2010, still from a color film, 122 minutes. Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg (Laetitia Casta and Eric Elmosnino).


AFTER SERGE GAINSBOURG DIED, at age sixty-two, in 1991, flags were flown at half-mast in France as President Mitterrand eulogized the singer-songwriter as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.” Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, comic-book artist Joann Sfar’s biopic of the louche legend, based on the director’s graphic novel, is short on poetry but long on puppetry.

“Gainsbourg transcends realities. I much prefer his lies to the truth,” the writer-director states in a closing intertitle, a slightly defensive license for his own unconventional methods in recapitulating his subject’s life story. Sfar’s debut film begins during the occupation of Paris, when pubescent Serge—né Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 to Russian-Jewish parents—perversely demands that he be the first to get his yellow star from the prefecture. Walking through the streets, young Lucien (Kacey Mottet-Klein) passes soldiers singing “La Marseillaise.” (The kid’s mangling of the lyrics foreshadows, none too subtly, the controversy that would ensue over Gainsbourg’s 1979 single “Aux armes et cætera,” his reggae version of the French national anthem, dramatized later in the film.) During his stroll, Lucien also notices anti-Semitic propaganda wheat-pasted throughout the city; a hideous caricature of a Jew on one of these posters comes to life, transforming into an enormous papier-mâchéd head that trails the boy. But this is only a fleeting phantasm. A puppet alter ego known as “the Mug,” which grotesquely exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent schnozzand ears, is soon introduced and stays for good, a totem of the artist’s self-loathing and self-destruction—and a trial for this viewer.

To be fair, there is something admirable about Sfar’s tinkering with the biopic, one of the most hidebound of genres, even if it involves a voluble creation that looks a lot like Sesame Street’s Count von Count. But this conceit seems even more misconceived when it becomes clear that Gainsbourg is just another paint-by-numbers retelling. After abandoning his ambitions as a painter, adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino, who uncannily resembles the singer) focuses on the chanson, his arrangements and clever lyrics eventually earning him a private audience (and more) with hep lady cat Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), who popularized his composition “La Javanaise” in 1963. Most of Gainsbourg unfolds as a series of clichéd encounters, lasting no longer than the A-side of a 45, between the libertine and the women who made him more famous. The entrance of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) to the strains of “Initials B.B.” is followed by a quick rehearsal of their duet “Bonnie and Clyde,” orgasmic moans that serve as the genesis of “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and Bardot’s morning-after query: “Are there any croissants?”

The transitions between lovers/muses are even creakier. “After an affair with Bardot, who cares about some English girl?” Gainsbourg says over the phone in between puffs of Gitanes, setting up, of course, the entrance of Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Their most famous creation, daughter Charlotte, is represented briefly as a half-pint, though Sfar skips the scandalous collaborations of père et fille: the 1984 song “Lemon Incest,” recorded when Charlotte was only twelve, and Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever, made two years later, in which they star as inappropriately attached father and child. Not even a puppet-id, it seems, could make sense of that.

Melissa Anderson

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at the Film Forum in New York.