Indeed, the fact that some key moments in Gainsbourg’s career – the album with Jean-Luc Godard muse Anna Karina, the ‘Lemon Incest’ single recorded with daughter Charlotte and his propositioning of Whitney Houston on a French TV chat show – all fail to make the final cut indicates no lack of juicy material. Instead the challenge for first-time writer-director Joann Sfar, known for his popular comic ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’, was to get under the skin of his subject, rather than detail every scandalous misadventure.
To a certain extent, Sfar succeeds, leaving us in no doubt of the lasting impression made on young Lucien Ginsburg by being forced to wear a yellow star in wartime Paris, where Nazi propaganda covered the streets with anti-Semitic grotesquerie. The film’s most daring move is to have one of these caricatures step down off the wall and become a life-size marionette which follows Gainsbourg around. However, instead of eating away at his confidence, ‘La Gueule’ (‘The Mug’) becomes a Tyler Durden-esque alter-ego prompting showbiz-aspirant Serge to further deeds of daring naughtiness. Yes, my boy, you shall shag Salvador Dalí’s girlfriend on the artist’s sofa!
With chic animated interludes adding to the appeal, it’s clear there’s an element of visual brio not found in every musical biopic, as this self-styled ‘Vie Héroïque’ happily encompasses sundry winning female performances (Anna Mouglalis as a slinky Ms Greco, Laetitia Casta as a voluptuous Bardot, the late Lucy Gordon as a gamine Miss Birkin) while happily spotlighting lookalike Eric Elmosnino’s convincingly addled incarnation of the title role.
A shame, then, that the film has already played its strongest cards by the end of the ’60s, resulting in an all-too-familiar slide into ravaged self-caricature in its sketchy account of Gainsbourg’s final decades. It’s as if Sfar has run out of things to say, but while the movie’s on a roll, it’s zesty, engaging and frisky.