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Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

A reverential portrait of France’s revered lothario

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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It’s useful, if not all that accurate, to think of Serge Gainsbourg as France’s answer to Dylan, and “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’’ as a Gallic “I’m Not There,’’ the 2007 meditation on the many faces of Bob. Both singers arose from narrow musical genres - folk in Dylan’s case, French chanson for Gainsbourg - to become rock/pop omnivores during the 1960s and ’70s, and both were artist-provocateurs who delighted in poking the culture in its tender spots. Both were ugly men who slept with beautiful women; both had an almost unholy gift for outrage. The chief difference may only be that Dylan has outlasted his personas while Gainsbourg, dead at 62 of a heart attack in 1991, caved in to his.

The comparison only goes so far. Joann Sfar’s worshipful biopic, based on his well-regarded graphic novel, is much more linear than “I’m Not There’’ - are those cries of relief I hear? - and while “Gainsbourg’’ is good inventive fun even if you don’t know the players, it lacks the Todd Haynes film’s insights into stardom and playacting, fame and enigma. For better and for worse, Sfar’s a fan, and his movie is a busy love letter to Gainsbourg that skates along the surface of the legend.

That said, what a legend. The parts of “Gainsbourg’’ that seem most fanciful are often the parts that turn out to be hard biographical fact: the childhood spent hiding from the Nazis in the classroom and forests of Limoges; talking naïve teen pop star France Gall (Sara Forestier) into recording a dirty song (1965’s “Lollipop’’); cheating on wives and girlfriends simultaneously; inciting right-wing riots with his 1978 reggae version of “La Marseillaise.’’ Gainsbourg had only one hit outside France, but it was a monster: 1969’s orgasmic “Je t’aime moi non plus.’’ He recorded it first with lover Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) but pulled the disc when her husband objected; a second version, with new girlfriend Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), was denounced by the Vatican and banned in Britain, where it went to No. 1 anyway.

The French actor Eric Elmosnino plays Gainsbourg, and he’s a ringer for the man one journalist likened to a “drowsy turtle.’’ He has the singer’s screw-you charisma down, too, and if he’s too old for the early scenes, he’s convincingly decadent for the film’s increasingly scattered second hour. (A wolfish young Kacey Mottet Klein plays Gainsbourg as a boy.) Sfar goes for magical realism and pop-art psychology, giving his hero a literal evil twin in the form of a giant puppet alter ego named Professor Flipus, who constantly whispers bad advice in Gainsbourg’s ear. It’s a conceit that probably worked better in the graphic novel.

That’s true of much of the movie. In a comic, you can pore over a feverishly detailed panel as long as you want, but the cluttered frames of “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’’ pass by in a rush of retro bric-a-brac. If you have the details of the man’s life committed to memory - meaning if you’re French - there’s still a lot of fun to be had playing spot the reference and name the demi-celebrity.

Sfar is justifiably in awe of Gainsbourg’s womanizing, and some of the great beauties of French cinema pass through, happy to be debauched: Casta as Bardot, Anna Mouglalis as Juliette Gréco, the stunning Mylène Jampanoï as Gainsbourg’s last wife, Bambou. Thankfully, the filmmaker hasn’t included the singer’s daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, with whom Serge made a notorious quasi-incestual music video when she was 13 (although at one point in this film’s production, Charlotte was planning to play her own father in drag).

If you don’t buy into the myth, of course, the hero may strike you as an arrogant little jerk who wasted his talent on booze, sex, and an endless daisy chain of Gauloises. But that’s why Sfar and his countrymen love Gainsbourg almost too much: He was their national bad boy, taking hedonism and sang-froid to their logical conclusions. He still matters so much that “A Heroic Life’’ never quite brings him into view.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

GAINSBOURG: A Heroic Life Written and directed by: Joann Sfar, based on his graphic novel

Starring: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta,

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 122 minutes

Unrated (as R: nudity, sex, saucy chansons, and the smoke from a million Gitanes)

In French, with subtitles

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