August 02nd 2010

Film review by Colin Dibben

Serge Gainsbourg sang, drank, fucked and raged his way to becoming an icon, a man who made French music cool and slept with some of the most iconic and beautiful women in France. Serge rocks, so any film about his life will probably rock too.  

Joann Sfar wrote and directed his biopic Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique, using his own graphic novel as a basis for the film’s material and form. The saturated colours look great and Eric Elmosnino does a disturbingly good imitation of Serge. 

Joann Sfar wanted to get around the big biopic problem, that a story in which the main character just sings-drinks-fucks-sings-drinks-fucks-dies may prove to be not much of a story at all. So, at the centre of Serge’s drama he places a self-conflict. I wasn’t quite sure about the nature of that conflict (for instance it didn’t seem as clearcut as creative Serge versus self-destructive Serge) but Sfar is clear what caused it: as a boy in Nazi-occupied Paris, Serge sees a grotesque anti-semitic stereotype on a poster. His ongoing self-esteem issues transform the stereotype into a cartoonish alter ego who appears as a character in the film (played by Doug Jones), leading Serge through key changes in his life.  

It’s a visually striking device and as an encompassing idea for the film it helps to relate many of Serge’s punk attitudes to historical Big Events. Except that Sfar doesn’t follow through and the film comes across as bitty and fragmented instead.  

In fact, while this is a good looking film, I would say that unless you already know something about Serge you will probably find it confusing. It may come across as a series of mere namechecks of historical people who are still famous in France. If you do know about Serge, you may feel that there are a few too many “hey, these five notes are great – why don’t we work them up into a hit” scenes, although this is excusable when the song composition process includes Brigitte Bardot stripteasing and sitting on top of a piano.  

There is some odd sharp editing and the dialogue seemed barely credible to me a lot of the time (maybe that’s the French for you – or the subtitles).  

Definitely one to go see to witness, in Eric Elmosnino’s performance, the embodiment of an icon, but after the film is over, Serge remains as impassive and elusive a figure as before.

To see Gainsbourg or in the Everyman Screen on the Green Islington click here

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