Director: Joann Sfar
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis, Doug Jones
Watch Gainsbourg online in the UK: MUBI UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Serge Gainsbourg (Elmosnino), legendary French songwriter, grows up in the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Not keen on classically trained piano, he soon falls into playing popular bar music, chatting up the ladies as he goes. Sure, he’s young, but he’s “wise beyond his years”, the boy proudly beams at a model after his still-life drawing class. It’s all fun and backstory for what seems to be a straightforward biopic of the singer. Then out sprouts his alter-ego, stalking through streets and flying through the air. That’s when things get very surreal.
His mug or “gruele” (played by Doug Jones) follows him everywhere, growling with dark intent. Sporting long spindly fingers and a giant wooden nose, he’s a Pan’s Labyrinth-esque creation born out of Gainsbourg’s own self-regard. He does everything from womanising to burning down his apartment while dancing and playing the guitar. It’s a bold, fantastical inclusion by director Joann Sfar, who adapts his own graphic novel with vivid flourishes all over the frame.
The plot gets second billing – broadly chronological, but far from linear, Sfar’s biopic shows us Serge’s rise to fame by way of partners, starting with Juliette Greco (Mouglalis) and progressing to Brigitte Bardot (Casta), then finally, the love of his life, Jane Birkin (Gordon). More a series of vignettes than a story with a conventional structure, Gainsbourg captures your attention and then fills your head with stylish distractions. Like puppets. And animation.
It’s not a terrible format. The movie shirks period context for an intensely personal focus, a choice that betrays the film’s budget but allows Elmosnino to shine. Brilliantly led by his suave and louche performance, this is one of the most interesting and stimulating music biopics in recent memory. With its impressive cast – particularly the late Lucy Gordon who fleshes out Birkin’s role – and a charismatic turn from Kacey Mottet Klein as young Serge, Gainsbourg makes Walk the Line look pedestrian. The soundtrack, too, matches the panache of Maryline Monthieux’s editing.
But at two hours, it rambles on for slightly too long – too long for Sfar’s wayward screenplay to survive. It would be a shame to introduce more exposition to support the final half, but a clipped down runtime would turn the heady content in a short and dazzling daydream. As it is, it’s a colourful and beguiling portrait.
Gainsbourg is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 21st September 2019.
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