As far as musical biopic subjects go, Serge Gainsbourg seemingly had it all, but considering director Joann Sfar (adapted from his own graphic novel) has stated that the film is based solely on what Gainsbourg himself had discussed in interviews, this being the ‘untold story of a musical icon’ as the UK posters proudly suggest is not strictly true. Yet, Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) is no traditional warts-and-all rise-and-fall story, nor is it a misty-eyed suck-up love-in. Instead, it’s a rather scattershot and surreal look at the life and loves of one of the most influential and brilliant musicians and poets in modern times, from his days as a tiddly kiddly in Nazi-occupied Paris, to his bedraggled twilight years.
Rather than offering anything particularly revelatory or meaningful, it settles on offering us a series of snapshots and tales from the whole span of his life, leaving more of a greatest hits package than a typical narrative thread. There’s the bit when he writes this famous song, and here’s the bit he walks headfirst into this scandal, and then there’s when he performed this classic number. It pretty much lets the man himself do the talking, through his words, his music and his actions, rather than viewing his life with any objectivity or context.
If it all sounds rather oversimplistic, it isn’t strictly so, because of the various fantastical elements and flights of fancy peppered throughout. Most notably, Gainsbarre, an imaginary caricature that haunts Gainsbourg, is a latex ‘inner demon’ of sorts that’s perhaps more prominent than it ought to have been, played by the go-to guy for becostumed prancers Doug Jones. Visualising doubts and feelings in biopics is nothing new, and while there are some nice moments where it all comes together quite beautifully, for the most part, it all feels like unnecessary.
But despite all efforts to distract, it’s still a colourful and enjoyable couple of hours, even if it’s a surprisingly lightweight and unsubstantial film, and a little too often preoccupied with ideas that don’t quite work. Hard to know who’d be ultimately satisfied – newcomers will get a flavour of the man and his music but not much substance, while fans will appreciate the nods and references but twiddle their thumbs plodding through the well-documented episodes in his career and life. Still, it’s worth a watch if only for what is a superb central performance from the uncanny Eric Elmosino. And the soundtrack, of course.