A review of Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), opening Wednesday, August 31st at Film Forum in New York City
Joann Sfar, the director of Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), did not set out to direct a film about Serge Gainsbourg the man, or even Serge Gainsbourg the musician; he wanted to capture the Gainsbourg he saw in his dreams. Sfar wrote on his website that the film would resemble “a fairy tale” rather than the Vie en Rose-style biopic that many anticipated; instead of recounting the songwriter’s life in a convincing, if conventional, manner, his film would be a phantasmagorical homage, unafraid of blatant omissions and fabrications. “I see him as a new archetype,” wrote Sfar of Gainsbourg, “one as complex as Cyrano, Don Juan, or Albert Cohen’s Solal…I want to speak about the poetic reasons why we identify with him.”
The result of Sfar’s experiment with unreality is an unusually flattering portrait of a public figure seldom remembered for his virtues. Gainsbourg was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a walking advertisement for unfiltered Gitanes; he chased after women 20 years his junior, talked a clueless France Gall into singing about a schoolgirl who sucks lollipops for loose change, and recorded “Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus,” a song so suggestive that the Vatican denounced it as profane. Gainsbourg was well known for seeking out trouble on every front, but in Sfar’s portrayal, he comes across as more mischievous than misogynistic — a self-conscious young man who could never quite believe his luck when he had a date with a pretty girl.Throughout the film, we see Gainsbourg’s tender side: Serge cooing at babies; Serge dropping a whiskey glass out of nervousness on Juliette Gréco’s floor; Serge eating pickles with his parents in their little Parisian kitchen.
The songwriter’s much-documented decline is addressed too, albeit selectively: It is largely by omission that Sfar characterizes Gainsbourg as a lovable, dorky poet. Sfar’s screenplay mercifully leaves out the singer’s American TV appearance when he said, in what appeared to be a drunken stupor, that he wanted “to fuck” Whitney Houston. “Lemon Incest,” a truly atrocious song Serge recorded with his daughter Charlotte when she was 13, also goes unmentioned, as do the majority of his songs recorded after 1980.