Serge Gainsbourg neophytes won’t learn much from Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg. That’s a compliment. If it’s a mistake to think a two hour-plus film could ever coherently summarize a messy, event-filled life—and nearly all of them can’t—then the film on the French troubadour/horndog deserves brownie points, at least, for thinking outside the box. Before filming, Sfar detailed his subject’s life in a comic book, and it shows: His biopic is episodic without being comprehensive or even educational. (Sfar omits many of his most outlandish—and therefore film-friendly—activities.) Instead, it depicts his life as a dreamscape, a wild bacchanalia that often defies easy description—and that’s before our hero gets into drugs.
Eric Elmosnino, who so looks like the randy musician he could be his clone, purrs and smokes his way through a restless life. After a too brief start in Nazi-occupied France, with young Serge first in line to get his mandatory yellow star, Gainsbourg spends unusually long on his pre-fame stint as a songwriter less struggling than merrily lazy. It’s 50 minutes before he pens one of his first hits, and longer still until the first classic biopic moment: Writing the heavily suggestive “Les Sucettes”—about sucking lollipops, or perhaps another phallic item—for teen starlet France Gall. It’s not long until he’s diddling Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) then Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), and performing not-entirely-sacrilegious covers of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus,” sometimes while wearing only bed sheets, or less.
Once SG is into drugs and en route to far too early obsolescence things finally become more routine. But they’re still strange. After all, this is a biopic not above the odd animated interlude, and one that saddles our frequent anti-hero with an imaginary friend (played by Doug Jones of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, who rocks a puppet head and goads him into following his sleazier instincts. The idea is to show how Gainsbourg (presumably) saw life or, failing that, make a film that would honor him without functioning as a live action Wikipedia page. Gainsbourg could stand to be even more free form, but it’s still the phantasmagoria La Vie En Rose thought it was. And with better music to boot.