On a windswept beach, the young Lucien Ginsburg says to an unseen woman, "Can I put my hand in yours?"
"No," she replies. "You're too ugly."
And so it begins, immediately whirling us away into an animated psychedelic credits sequence, the first of several fantasy sequences that mark Joann Sfar's portrait of the legendary French singer apart form the usual celebrity biopics.
Adapted from Sfar's own graphic novel, Sfar recounts the story of Gainsbourg (née Ginsburg) as a Jewish boy growing up in occupied Paris, first in line to collect his Star of David patch and first with the facetious backtalk to the officials who issue it; as a young art student, inspired by encounters with Boris Vian and slapstick singing troupe, Les Freres Jacques, to change his name, burn his paintings and pursue a life as a songwriter; early successes writing for France Gall and Juliette Greco lead to his (in)famous collaborations with Bardot and Birkin before the final descent into the alcoholic meltdown of his later years.
The film's origins on the inky pages of bandes dessiné are betrayed by the vivid embodiments of phantasmagoric creatures from Gainsbourg's imagination, notably his "gueule" (a common French term of abuse, reffering to the muzzle of an animal) a kind of muse-cum-familiar that, with his long spindly fingers, might have stepped straight from the frames of a Tim Burton picture. Here, Sfar has form of course, being one of the leading lights of a veritable new wave of comic writing exploding in France and Belgium over the last few years, with titles such as Little Vampire and Sardine in Outer Space.In Eric Elmosnino, a dead ringer for Serge himself, Sfar has found a true star in the making, overflowing with wit and charisma. And a special mention should also go to Kacey Mottet Klein who plays the singer as an irreverent young boy, more interested in guns and girls than piano lessons. For at least the first half, the singer's encounters with the great and the good of French cultural life are carried off with such aplomb, such pace, that one can hardly fail to be carried away with it all, and Gainsbourg's younger days come thick with laughter. As the man gets older though, the film seems to descend into the usual cliches of the celluloid rock star, and it's unclear whether this is a fault of the film or if Gainsbourg simply did become himself a cliched old rock star in his later years. But for the most part this is biography as hagiography - although it remains obscure to me what was so "heroic" (as the film's French subtitle suggests) about the life of this alcoholic who repeatedly abandoned his wife and children in order to get wasted and sleep with a parade of nubile teenagers. As the film progressed past another glass of champagne, another call for croissants, another smokey jazz club, another apartment whose windows offer a view of the Eiffel Tower or the Palais de Versailles, I couldn't help but wonder whether, if I were French, would I find this all just as unbearable as all those horrendous films about "swinging London", from Blow Up to The Boat that Rocked.
EXTRAS ★★½ A behind-the-scenes featurette (9:31); interviews with writer/director Sfar and star Elmosnino (11:29); an interview with Sfar that was filmed in London in 2010 (9:40); the trailer.