Serge Gainsbourg: A Colorful Life Brought to the Big Screen

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Singer and film director Serge Gainsbourg with his wife Jane Birkin

Even though he's been dead for nearly 20 years, the singer, actor and director Serge Gainsbourg remains a cult figure in France, remembered for his ever present Gauloise cigarette, perpetual stubble and throaty voice delivering sly, ribald lyrics. The wall outside his Left Bank home has even been turned into a shrine of sorts, containing thousands of graffiti messages from fans — a very un-Parisian sight. Now, with this week's release of the film Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), he is also getting the cinematic biography treatment, and for his compatriots, it's a national event.

Gainsbourg's life story is a natural fit for the movies because he redefined himself every decade, from the clean-cut but gangly chanson française jazz singer of the 1950s to the envelope-pushing, rock-'n'-roll ladies' man of the late '60s and then the washed-up, alcoholic reggae and synth-pop performer of the '80s. Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 62. The film's director, comic-book artist and writer Joann Sfar, told the French magazine Telerama that it was Gainsbourg's multiple personalities that drew him to the project. "Gainsbourg wasn't just a singer but a strong archetype across time like Don Juan ... he's almost an imaginary character," he said.

It's probably because of his status as a lovable but slightly tragic French idol that nobody has dared to dramatize his life until now. Sfar's biopic is an audacious undertaking. Starring a largely unknown French actor, Eric Elmosnino, whose resemblance to Gainsbourg is eerie, the film was made on a budget of $23 million and is being distributed by Universal Pictures International — hardly the stuff of a modest, European art-house pic. Sfar tackles the entire span of Gainsbourg's life, spending a good chunk of the movie exploring what it was like for the young Jewish artist to grow up surrounded by anti-Semitic propaganda during the German occupation.

And, because Sfar is an animator by trade, the film incorporates cartoon-inspired live-action characters, like Gainsbourg's alter ego — a tall, lithe man wearing a grotesquely oversize latex nose and ears. The character, who talks to Gainsbourg in moments of anguish and solitude, is meant to be a manifestation of the singer's lifelong insecurity with his looks and appears in sharp juxtaposition with the anti-Semitic posters in occupied Paris. "I wanted to tell a story that was neither a phantasmagoria nor an investigation, but instead fantasy built around the performance of the character, almost like a theater play. Since you can't please everyone, I wanted to try to go as far as I could with the innermost feelings I had with respect to Gainsbourg," Sfar told the Swiss daily Le Matin in a recent interview.

Rounding out the mostly French cast are an exuberant Laetitia Casta as Brigitte Bardot, Anna Mouglalis as Juliette Greco and the singer Philippe Katerine as Boris Vian. The British actress Lucy Gordon plays Gainsbourg's love interest and later wife, the English model, singer and actress Jane Birkin. (The movie is dedicated to Gordon, who committed suicide last May at the age of 28 after finishing the film.)

While quite common in Hollywood, biopics of pop-culture figures are a rather recent phenomenon in French cinema, with filmmakers only starting to delve into the genre following the success of American movies about Jim Morrison, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, among others. In 2007, Olivier Dahan made the film La Vie en Rose about Edith Piaf, which was followed by biopics about the writer Françoise Sagan and the comic Coluche, as well as two films about fashion designer Coco Chanel. Some French directors are adopting an American-biopic style of filmmaking too, examining how the influences of a person's childhood shape his or her actions later in life — as Sfar does nicely in Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) by devoting so much attention to Gainsbourg's early life in Paris. Another interesting aspect of the movie is Sfar's focus on the composition process behind some of Gainsbourg's hits, such as "Poinçonneur des Lilas," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus."

Reviews of the film have thus far been mixed, with some critics saying that the fantastical, comic-book-inspired elements are misplaced and that at times the movie feels like merely a highlight reel of the major moments of Gainsbourg's life. However, theaters have been packed with French audiences eager to see their Serge and his illustrious life on the big screen. His may not in the end have been the most heroic of lives, but like his music, the film preserves the Gainsbourg mystique.