Joann Sfar’s loving, surreal celebration of the life and work of the iconic French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg is one of the more engaging and intriguing music biopics of recent years, largely because the graphic novelist and first time director embraces an unconventional approach to tell the story of an unconventional life.

Gainsbourg (Vie Héroique) loosely traces the life of the often controversial musician from his birth (as Lucien Ginzburg) in Paris in 1928 to his death in 1991 at age 62, covering just enough of the events of his life to appease the uninitiated who are curious as to what all the fuss was about the ‘dirty old man’ of French music.

While most of the ingredients that make music biopics so enticing are present (intergenerational conflict, cool tunes, and of course sex, lots of booze, and rock ‘n’ roll), writer/director Sfar eschews reliance on these tired tropes as an end in and of themselves, employing a ragged storytelling style and a delightfully weird narrative device in the service of what the director himself calls a homage, rather than a straight recounting.

As the film is adapted from Sfar’s graphic novel about Gainsbourg, it’s unsurprising that he retains a character referred to as ‘La Guele (The Mug),’ a grotesque prosthetic cartoon who initially steps down off of an anti-Semitic poster during the Nazi occupation. La Guele functions as a sort of inner mentor to Gainsbourg and counterpoint to the women who function as Gainsbourg’s muses (most significantly Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin), articulating the aesthetic sensibility and philosophies of life and love that tumble through the smoke, booze and sex suffused soul of the man.

The key to the film’s success for the more causal viewer and hardcore fan alike lies in the astonishing impersonation of Gainsbourg by actor Eric Elmosnino, who bears a resemblance to the singer that is beyond uncanny. Crucially, the actor also has the chops to carry off both the drama and the music (apart from the notorious “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” Elmosnino and the cast perform all the music themselves); even by biopic standards the film features far more musical performances than is the norm.

The supporting cast hold their own around Elmosnino’s nuanced, mesmerizing portrayal, including the late Lucy Gordon, who ably conveys the doe-eyed eroticism of the gamine Jane Birkin, and Laetitia Casta as the sultry, flagrantly sexual Brigitte Bardot. Notable too is Doug Jones (Hellboy’s Abe Sapien, and Pan’s Labyrinth’s disturbing Fauno) as The Mug, who works in tandem with make-up and effects to give the cartoon figure of La Guele an aura that is both tender and sinister.

Connoisseurs of the musically eccentric and the colourfully seedy have long held Gainsbourg in high esteem, and while Sfar has made a lovably shaggy film about him that plays more directly to that audience than to mainstream viewers, there is plenty on display for all to enjoy.

Review by Ian Gilchrist

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I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.