Movie Review: Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Beautifully surreal portrait of the artist as a young man

How do you tell the life story of an icon as groundbreaking and beloved as Serge Gainsbourg? It seems that the traditional linear biopic has become passé, and the trend for a more surreal approach is exactly what is needed to pay homage to one of art’s most remarkable provocateurs. So from the very beginning, with cartoon credits depicting droopy eyed Gainsbourg fish smoking cigarettes in Nazi Paris, it’s clear that this will be no ordinary birth to life to death experience – this will be a graphic novel of a film.

It is the privilege of biopic makers to pick and choose the events that will define the man they wish to present. The opening scene is highly potent – the young boy Lucien Ginsberg asks, innocently “Can I put my hand in yours?” and is rebuffed cruelly. “No” comes the reply “You’re too ugly”. It was this obsession with aesthetics, alongside an early brush with anti-Semitism in the war that is chosen as Gainsbourg’s greatest influence. The cocksure young boy who chooses to claim his yellow star first and imbue it with pride, not shame, is nonetheless accompanied by a lifelong insecurity about his looks, which stems from the large nosed anti Jewish propaganda cartoons pasted all over Paris in the thirties. They subsequently come to life in a gigantic multi armed monster who watches over Gainsbourg as he navigates his early sexualisation, and love of art and controversy.

Another alter ego develops, a tall, thin, long fingered, big nosed puppet of a man called Professor Flipus, representing Gainsbourg’s insecurities, doubts and humiliations even as his real life persona gains in confidence and notoriety for his music and his manipulations with women. When he enters into a relationship with Brigitte Bardot, Flipus is there, jealously muttering cruel jibes, willing him down from a place that Gainsbourg the ugly boy, the unwanted Jew, isn’t yet sure he deserves. The performances are strong enough without the puppets, certainly, but its gimmickry at its arty best.

Filled with cartoon moments and utterly charming surrealness, there is also warmth, vulnerability and plenty of humour – a beautiful scene, after we’ve witnessed a fantastic re-enactment of the intimacy between Gainsbourg and Bardot that was the birth of controversial song Je T’aime, is Bardot’s fit of sobbing, comforted by Gainsbourg’s traditional Jewish parents, after her husband discovers her indiscretion, while Gainsbourg (played with uncanny belle-laide magnetism by Eric Elmosnino) sulks like a teenager in the next room. And always smoking – Gainsbourg’s beloved cigarettes are treated like a lover in this film.

Much focus is cast on the intricacies of his much-publicised relationship with Jane Birkin (played with an endearing mix of strength and fragility by Lucy Gordon, who sadly killed herself last year) and his increasing audacity with his highly sexualised songs, and his need to fulfil his early role as rebel.

Gainsbourg is often just the right side of uncomfortably intimate, but that’s what makes it such a magnetic film. One never likes to see behind the smokescreen of an icon and discover something unbearably ordinary, and whatever the real truth, if such a thing exists, there is no danger of walking away with the thought that Serge Gainsbourg is anything less than one of the most extraordinary artists of our time.