Review: Gainsbourg – A Heroic Life

Doug Jones and Eric Eric Elmosnino in “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.”

Dir. Joann Sfar. 135 minutes.

Serge Gainsbourg is judged by consensus to have been the greatest of all French rock artists. His mortifying explicit “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was banned from the airwaves even as it climbed the charts, and his reggae version of “La Marseillaise” provoked bomb threats from French nationalists. A smoldering Gitane in hand, Gainsbourg could have matched any American rocker for unruly originality.

You may be rolling your eyes at the thought of yet another biopic of a musical Great Man, complete with the requisite childhood trauma, difficult family relationships, disastrous love affairs and substance-abuse struggles. And the familiar elements are all abundantly present: Gainsbourg’s life was continually perforated by outbursts, scandals and break-ups, and much of his childhood was spent evading the anti-Semitic persecutions of the Vichy government. Director Joann Sfar, who also created the comic book on which the film is based, enlivens the formula with whimsical touches: at points, Gainsbourg converses with a hideously hook-nosed, spidery-fingered version of himself — perhaps the creature he sees when he looks in the mirror? This and other fantastical touches help flesh out an all-too-familiar skeleton into something quite unique.

Eric Elmosnino, who portrays Gainsbourg, seems born for the role: not only does he capture the artist’s brash melancholy, but his face, like Gainsbourg’s, is all nose, ears and Adam’s apple, a resemblance so profound that I’ve occasionally seen stills from this film accidentally presented as actual photos of Gainsbourg. Vive la similitude?