DVD Review: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

STUDIO: Music Box | DIRECTOR: Joann Sfar | CAST: Eric Elmosnino, Laetitia Casta, Lucy Gordon, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis, Claude Chabrol
RELEASE DATE: 3/20/12 | PRICE: DVD $34.95, Blu-ray $43.95
BONUSES: making-of featurette, storyboards and character sketches, documentary on Joann Sfar by Mathieu Amalric
SPECS: NR | 122 min. | Foreign language drama | 2:35 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Singer-composer-actor-filmmaker-novelist Serge Gainsbourg was one of the great renaissance men in late 20th century pop culture. In addition to his daunting artistic accomplishments, he was one of the finest provocateurs ever to guest on a TV talk show or to grace an outraged tabloid headline. The imaginative but choppy biopic film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life attempts to encapsulate his busy life into a two-hour movie, and unfortunately obscures his artistic achievement in the process.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life movie scene

Eric Elmosnino is Serge Gainsbourg and Laetitia Casta is Brigitte Bardot in Gainsbourg.

The film’s frame device is an odd one worthy of a cartoon — no surprise, as filmmaker Joann Sfar is a comic book artist by trade. The frame finds Gainsbourg haunted by his “twin,” a grotesque version of him that contains all his antisocial, addictive impulses (including the alcoholism and smoking that ended his life prematurely at 62). This garish creation, played by actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) wearing oversized head and hand prosthetics, looms over lead Eric Elmosnino, whose realistic performance is sometimes undercut by the whimsy of the twin’s appearance.

Sfar moves quickly through Serge’s childhood in Nazi-occupied France to reach his transformation from art student into jazz pianist and hesitant chanteur. Although skilled as both as a singer and pianist, Gainsbourg realized early on that his finest, most marketable talent was in writing moving ballads and memorable pop-rock tunes for a succession of famous French singers and actresses, most of whom he became romantically involved with.

The actresses playing these French and English ladies are tremendously sexy, and their presence in the film constitutes one of its central virtues. Laetitia Casta in particular makes a stunning Bardot, while the late Lucy Gordon does an excellent job of incarnating Gainsbourg’s soulmate, the great Jane Birkin.

Elmosnino (who won a Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Actor) is nothing short of miraculous as Gainsbourg, as he not only is the spitting image of the man, but also does his best to convey the conflicting forces that drove him. Being a relatively young (47) and presumably clean-living performer, he can’t quite capture, though, the sheer dissoluteness of Gainsbourg’s final years, when both his genius and self-destruction were evident in his bad-boy public behavior.

Sfar’s scripting leaves much to be desired, and thus makes the film a better prospect for those who are already familiar with Gainsbourg — the uninitiated will be wondering what all the fuss is about, unless they visit YouTube first and take in a good amount of Gainsbourg’s glorious music and outrageous TV appearances before a viewing.

Of the DVD’s bonus features, Mathieu Amalric’s (Wild Grass) 45-minute documentary on Sfar is the most engaging. Produced in conjunction with ARTE France, Joann Sfar (Drawings) follows Sfar around Paris as he talks about life, love and women while sketching just about everything he lays his eyes on (including a slew of zoo animals).

Buy or Rent Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
Amazon graphic
DVD | Blu-ray
DVD Empire graphicDVD | Blu-rayMovies Unlimited graphicDVD | Blu-rayNetflix graphic

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”