A self-creation premised on contradictions, Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is produced by his life and vice versa.
In 1941, 13-year-old Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein) notices new placards in shop windows on the streets of occupied Paris, images of big-nosed Jews with glaring eyes. Startled when one of these monstrous cartoons comes to life and begins to follow him down the street, the boy makes a decision: he walks into a Militärverwaltung office and asks for his gold star. The soldiers are surprised: "Who do you think you are?" one asks. "I'm Jewish," he answers, "My father plays piano at the bar."
And with this, the boy who grows up to be Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) describes the struggle that will shape him. Throughout Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Gainsbourg [Vie héroïque]), the artist is both inspired and troubled by the world around him, from the father who chastises him, to the Nazis who torment him, to the fans and women who love him. Fearful and rebellious, bold and self-destructive, he lives a "heroic life" which is here depicted in broad, strange, and occasionally brilliant strokes. Graphic novelist and director Joann Sfar -- who claims Gainsbourg as his own lifelong inspiration -- makes visible an imagined internal life, full of passions and terrors, monsters and muses.
A "biopic" that questions the concept, Gainsbourg points out the major events of Gainsbourg's raucous life, supposing what he might have felt in fantastic recreations. His most constant companion is La Gueule (the ever-flexible Doug Jones, who has also played the Faun in Pan's Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies), essentially a large nose atop a spindly figure, part caricature, part figment, and part projection -- what Gainsbourg might have thought others saw when they looked at him. Something like an alter ego, La Gueule goads and comforts Gainsbourg: "I'm your mug," he tells him when asked, "You’ve become hideous. I have things to offer you."
Some of these things are courage, talent, and anger, ways to fight back. In La Gueule, Gainsbourg sees his own capacity for love and also possessiveness. He takes up multiple, intersection careers, as a painter and, though he early on tells his father Joseph (Razvan Vasilescu), "I don't like the piano!", as a frankly superb pianist. Scrawny and full of himself, young Lucien flirts with the lovely nude model (Ophélia Kolb) in his drawing class. "I'll seduce women who look like you," he promises her, then entertains her over cigarettes and dinner at a café. When the aging chanteuse Fréhel (Yolande Moreau) stumbles in, drunk and fur-collared, they all sing a raunchy tune: when a clarinetist appears out of nowhere to accompany them, it's no accident that he's an observant Jew, yet another indication of the fantasy at play in this recounting.
As the scene shows Lucien's precociousness, it also serves a plot point, leading to his mother's (Dinara Droukarova) efforts to contain and train him by sending him to boarding school. Here's only moved to more defiance, Lucien uses his arts to express his frustration and also his ardor. As an increasingly famous -- at once beloved and scandalous -- songwriter and performer, he becomes involved with a series of stunning women, including Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Each appears here as a remarkable fiction, gorgeous and devoted to him, at least for some time. His father is especially thrilled when Gainsbourg brings home Bardot (he does a little dance while his wife contemplates the riches such a romance might mean), who spends a few minutes dancing barely covered by a white sheet, as he smokes more cigarettes and plays the piano.
When this affair fades, Gainsbourg seduces Birkin by admiring exactly what other people see as a problem, that she's 22 years younger than he: "You said I had legs like a little girl and a baby's dress," she says, shyly. "It's pretty when you cry," he murmurs, "You seem so lost." At least part of this seduction occurs when he convinces Birkin to provide the heavy breathing on a song he wrote with Bardot in mind, and that she declined to record with him, "Je t'aime… moi non plus." Featuring explicit lyrics and Birkin's imitation orgasm, the song was condemned by the Vatican and a huge hit for Gainsbourg. He went on to direct a few movies, and record concept albums like Rock Around the Bunker (about the Nazis) and L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man, one of his nicknames). He also caused a stir with "Aux Armes et cetera," a reggae adaptation of "La Marseillaise." The film shows him on stage in yet another smoky club, bravely performing like Paul Henreid in Casablanca.
Such moments suggest the film's notion of what's "heroic" is at least partly ironic. Gainsbourg's manipulations of women (or the sketches of "women" offered here) are surely vexing, as is his obvious distress as he grapples with his past, with his Jewishness, and with his times. La Gueule's commentary is less insightful than a form of emphasis, the girls more like decoration than individuals. But even as the movie sometimes stumbles over its own devices, it's consistently smart about how images are made and absorbed, how prejudice and self-hatred, as well as commodification and transgression, are flipsides of one another. A self-creation made of contradictions, Serge Gainsbourg here is produced by his life and vice versa.