Many musician biopics make cripplingly guilt-inducing childhood memories the motivating force for everything the subject does: in Ray, all you needed to know about Ray Charles was that he saw his brother drown before going blind. In Walk the Line, Johnny Cash's problems were his cold-hearted dad and pill-popping, which naturally led to singing at Folsom Prison. The new Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life posits that Serge Gainsbourg (played here by Eric Elmosnino)?beloved, semi-institutionalized songwriter/provocateur for whose death France lowered its flags while then-President Fran�ois Mitterand delivered a eulogy?was primarily spurred on by a freaky-looking Jewish creature known as La Gueule that followed him and made dramatic speeches. The bow-legged, hook-nosed, long-nailed leering id is incarnated by Doug Jones, perhaps best known as Hellboy's sarcastic fishman companion Abe Sapien. That Jones here is wearing prosthetics made by the same special effects team that also costumed him for Pan's Labyrinth says a lot about the anything-goes opening of A Heroic Life, a thinly connected memoir propelled by hallucinatory bursts of animation, dialogues with the monster, and other grotesque appearances.
Gainsbourg's adolescence is macabre without being scary or becoming overly cute. An early scene sees young Serge asking a girl on the beach if he can hold her hand. "No, you're too ugly," she replies, setting a clear goal in mind: how to get women while being homely. La Gueule is a repellant but self-confident role model, proving you can get away with anything as long as you do it with unblinking verve. (It's a more flattering image of his self-loathing than his first imaginary companion, a giant toddling head.) Before puberty, Gainsbourg gets a model to disrobe after hours behind the teacher's back, and draws nudes for classmates and instructors while shipped away to the countryside to evade the Nazis. After the war he tries to paint, but the goony alter-ego returns, burns his work, and instructs him to start writing songs. Gainsbourg's still an enormously popular figure in France, and the movie assumes a fair degree of familiarity with his life, so it'd be best to know a few biographical high points and hear a few songs before you go if you're not already familiar with either. While Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life discreetly eliminates some of his grosser public provocations, mostly committed on French '80s television (his rabble-rousing 1985 single "Lemon Incest," or telling Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her on a talk show), it's not a total valorization, depicting some his bad behavior towards wife and kids. Still, director Joann Sfar's film worships the myth, if not the man, which isn't a terrible decision: his life story is awfully fun if you eliminate the heavy drinking, death at age 62, public degeneration, etc.
One of Gainsbourg's first big splashes came in 1966 from two big singles he wrote for y�-y� singer France Gall, "Baby Pop" and "Les Sucettes." The former's splashy horns are pleasantly martial, while the latter is a seemingly innocuous ballad. One of the benefits of seeing the film, if you've never bothered to look up the lyrics, is finally learning, at extensively subtitled length, why his work frequently attracted such a furor: "Baby Pop," broken down, is as angry as Pulp's "Common People," with a young woman contemplating a bleak future ("The few pennies you'll earn take hard work," "You'll end up getting married against your will"). Gall couldn't miss the anger there, but she had no idea that "Les Sucettes" is not merely about a girl licking aniseed lollipops, not even when giant phallic suckers showed up to sway on the set of a promotional video. Furious for years, Gall eventually said in 2004 that she wasn't mad at the songwriter anymore because he was hard to get mad at; the movie makes it similarly hard, albeit by omitting hurtful moments or serious betrayals of others' confidence. (The only people he pranks or offends here are himself and anti-Semites.) But the movie does include this career milestone in compressed form: both songs are heard partially in one scene depicting Gall and her temporary Svengali meeting under her father's watchful and greedy eye. More time is devoted to Gainsbourg simply playing and singing duets with his muses in the privacy of his apartment or house: "Comic Strip" and "Bonnie and Clyde" with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), "Je t'Aime Moi Non Plus" with British model/actress Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon). If you know the songs, the renditions are refreshingly sincere: songwriter and singer working out the kinks for fun, tempering the often-sardonic/salacious content.
As Gainsbourg's public profile rises, he banishes La Gueule and the story becomes more straightforward, hitting the high points of his recorded career. To keep viewers enjoyably off-balance, years are elided with no notice, as children arrive and wives leave with little warning. The exception is Birkin, who arrives to co-star in 1969's Slogan. She's not the unlikely leading man's first choice (he fumes that he wanted Marisa Berenson instead), but Gordon's star impersonation is unnervingly convincing and scene-stealing. As she fades out, Gainsbourg's final alcoholic years slam together in a whir of drunken stumbling, a brief hallucination that he has the head of a cabbage, and?strangest of all?sees him recording a reggae album in 1979, Aux Armes et Caetera. The title track ("La Marseillaise" with a Jamaican makeover) inspired death threats and angry mobs (depicted) as well as the charge from French journalist/essayist Michel Droit that the singer could be charged with provoking anti-Semitism?a strikingly ugly moment the film also leaves out. The film sticks to the professional and romantic highlights, plus the more endearing of Gainsbourg's public embarrassments, retaining speed and momentum by juxtaposing many of the musician's strangest, most unexpected acts at lightning speed. The contempt for explanations or context helps, keeping the film off center. If the film title's adjective "heroic" seems overblown on the basis of the evidence created, for Sfar (a cartoonist who's declared admiration for his subject as a prominent French Jewish cultural figure), Gainsbourg seems to matter most as an icon who never bored the public. This sex-dazed figure and drunken anti-establishment warrior is something of a Hemingway-esque caricature, hunting for notoriety rather than big game. This Gainsbourg isn't necessarily always the one of public record, but he's the one of the albums: a compelling cartoon of outsized dimensions, too entertaining to get upset with.