If there’s an artist whose life and work cries out for an unconventional biopic, it’s Serge Gainsbourg, the great French singer and songwriter who cycled through musical styles as playfully and promiscuously as he did beautiful women. Following him from his childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris to his booze-soaked decline in the years before his death, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life can only skim along the surface of his turbulent life, while limiting his songs to a smattering of greatest hits and scandalous ditties. Writer-director Joann Sfar, a French comics artist making his debut feature, adds some graphic flourishes to the film, most notably a masked, beakish alter ego that follows his subject around and acts as an agent of chaos. But what’s surprising, and ultimately disappointing, about Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is the degree to which Sfar allows biopic obligations to smother his more whimsical instincts.
Bearing a resemblance to Gainsbourg so uncanny, it’s hard to imagine him playing anyone else, Eric Elmosnino projects the effortless charisma and talent that made a not-terribly-handsome man a symbol and voice of libertine sexuality. After a prologue in his childhood that’s too cute by half, Sfar skips breezily through Gainsbourg’s time in postwar music halls and the rapid escalation of his reputation both for songcraft and womanizing. His brief affair with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) represents a turning point for man and movie: Their dalliance in Gainsbourg’s apartment, a collaboration of many sorts, is the intoxicating party before a whopping hangover. From there, Sfar deals with his troubled marriage with British actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) and his inevitable plunge into the clichés of self-destructive celebrity.
The subtitle A Heroic Life isn’t meant ironically: Sfar adores his subject, flaws and all, which does a particular disservice to the film’s second half. Moral considerations aside, romanticizing Gainsbourg’s bad behavior limits his complexity as a character, one whose vices inflicted real damage on himself and the people who loved him. Though he covers a great deal of biographical territory, Sfar doesn’t put together a coherent picture of Gainsbourg, who seems to recede further from view the more time the film spends with him. He becomes a VH1 casualty, falling into the one-size-fits-all formula for grandiose musical flameouts.