Joann Sfar, the director of Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), did not set out to direct a film about Serge Gainsbourg the man, or even Serge Gainsbourg the musician; he wanted to capture the Gainsbourg he saw in his dreams. Sfar wrote on his website that the film would resemble “a fairy tale” rather than the Vie en Rose-style biopic that many anticipated; instead of recounting the songwriter’s life in a convincing, if conventional, manner, his film would be a phantasmagorical homage, unafraid of blatant omissions and fabrications. “I see him as a new archetype,” wrote Sfar of Gainsbourg, “one as complex as Cyrano, Don Juan, or Albert Cohen’s Solal…I want to speak about the poetic reasons why we identify with him.”
The result of Sfar’s experiment with unreality is an unusually flattering portrait of a public figure seldom remembered for his virtues. Gainsbourg was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a walking advertisement for unfiltered Gitanes; he chased after women 20 years his junior, talked a clueless France Gall into singing about a schoolgirl who sucks lollipops for loose change, and recorded “Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus,” a song so suggestive that the Vatican denounced it as profane. Gainsbourg was well known for seeking out trouble on every front, but in Sfar’s portrayal, he comes across as more mischievous than misogynistic — a self-conscious young man who could never quite believe his luck when he had a date with a pretty girl. Throughout the film, we see Gainsbourg’s tender side: Serge cooing at babies; Serge dropping a whiskey glass out of nervousness on Juliette Gréco’s floor; Serge eating pickles with his parents in their little Parisian kitchen.
The songwriter’s much-documented decline is addressed too, albeit selectively: It is largely by omission that Sfar characterizes Gainsbourg as a lovable, dorky poet. Sfar’s screenplay mercifully leaves out the singer’s American TV appearance when he said, in what appeared to be a drunken stupor, that he wanted “to fuck” Whitney Houston. “Lemon Incest,” a truly atrocious song Serge recorded with his daughter Charlotte when she was 13, also goes unmentioned, as do the majority of his songs recorded after 1980.
The songs that do appear in the film are redemptive. Gainsbourg’s varied and exhaustive songbook covered virtually every pop genre imaginable, from witty chanson and snappy jazz to teen pop, reggae, rap, and electronica; he played a part in composing almost every popular French song of the 60s and 70s, and his trademark use of wordplay, double entendres, and literary references continues to influence lyricists today. Sfar’s characters routinely burst into song in the middle of dialogues (a device popularized in France with Alain Resnais’s On Connaît la Chanson), and the rerecordings the actors made are, for the most part, rather good. Then again, songs like “La Javanaise” are virtually unfuckupable.
Sfar attempts to qualify the film’s otherwise unmerited title, Vie Héroïque (a heroic life), by revisiting the scandal surrounding Gainsbourg’s reggae version of “La Marseillaise,” a track recorded with local musicians in Jamaica entitled “Aux Armes et Caetera.” The song had patriots, well, up in arms — and drove the conservative press to publish openly anti-Semitic remarks and even to advocate revoking Gainsbourg’s French citizenship. These attacks frame Gainsbourg both as a victim of bigotry and a hero defending freedom of expression, but in real life, Gainsbourg didn’t care at all about politics. He was not an activist, and the Marseillaise incident had more in common with Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock – a symbolic, rather than consequential, pot stirring. Sfar would have been better off directing a film entitled Serge Gainsbourg: Badass than attempting to martyrize the misogynistic provocateur.
Of course, no Gainsbourg biography is complete without a mention of his love affairs, and, in this regard, Sfar’s film does not disappoint. We see all three of his wives, and numerous girlfriends, including Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis) and Brigitte Bardot. Lucy Gordon is a convincing Jane Birkin (Gainsbourg’s final wife, with whom he spent the last decade of his life) with her coltish figure, desperate, breathy register, and very bad French. Brigitte Bardot is played by Laetitia Casta; she is an appalling actress, but, fortunately, so was Bardot, and Casta mimics B.B’s tone-deaf singsong with an uncanny accuracy. Casta’s impersonation is at its truest when Sfar, invoking the opening shot in Godard’s Contempt, trails the camera over her naked body as she writhes around on her bed. Sfar chooses not to explore the Gainsbourg paradox – or, just how it was possible for such a conventionally unattractive man to seduce the world’s most beautiful women.
Visually, Sfar indulges his own interest in comic-book aesthetics and Jewish culture indiscriminately, to the detriment of the film. A respected graphic novelist best known for The Rabbi’s Cat and The Professor’s Daughter, Sfar creates a magical-realist setting complete with animated segments, larger-than-life personalities, and, most unfortunately, an animated talking cat (seriously). These stylistic decisions register as gimmicks, not necessities. They’re also ugly.
Even more problematic is the way in which Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity, which has been largely overlooked since his death, is a literal character in the film – appearing in the form of animated alter ego with enormous ears, a big nose, and a scheming, self-destructive streak. This figure follows Gainsbourg throughout his life, making intermittent appearances during romantic encounters, songwriting sessions, and even childhood memories. Through a series of fictionalized flashbacks, Sfar suggests that Gainsbourg’s ambivalence towards the French authorities is rooted in his childhood experiences wearing the yellow star and fleeing from the Nazis, and that his obsession with beautiful women began when he was very young. These narrative extrapolations, while intended to lend the film its fairy-tale quality, are overstated and much too neat: The appeal of Gainsbourg’s public persona was his total unwillingness to fit such middle-of-the-road Freudian diagnoses.
Joann Sfar’s biggest success in Vie Héroïque is in theater actor Eric Elmosnino’s portrayal of Gainsbourg’s blasé ambivalence. The one attribute Sfar wisely refrained from ascribing to “his” Gainsbourg was musical passion, and for good reason: Serge Gainsbourg never really cared for music. He wanted to be a painter, and never stopped seeing himself as a failure for quitting art; it was out of financial necessity that he started performing as a pianist on the Parisian nightclub circuit. Even when it became clear that his musical, not artistic, talent was his key to success, he continued to dismiss his songwriting as unserious. “I’d be willing to cut my ear off like Van Gogh for art, but not for a song,” he told a talk-show host on French television at the beginning of his career. When asked some years later how it felt to have composed a winning Eurovision entry (performed by France Gall), he replied that all it meant to him was “45 million” – the sum, in francs, he had received from the profits. This scene is recounted in Vie Héroïque and is particularly significant: From then on for Gainsbourg, commercial success and artistic failure came hand in hand.
When Gainsbourg died in 1991, President François Mitterrand spoke at his funeral, comparing him to Apollinaire and Baudelaire and lauding him for elevating music to an art form. Sfar fails to see the irony in this celebration. Instead, he gushes.