Gainsbourg is, self-evidently, a biopic of the French singer Serge Gainsbourg (here played by Eric Elmosnino). It is a film that promises much early on, and follows Gainsbourg as a boy – cheeky and wise beyond his years – growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris which is a charming experience. The charm is reinforced by occasional excursions into the world of fantasy, as a grotesque character Serge draws (a cross between his own appearance and that of the Jew depicted in Nazi propaganda posters) comes alive and accompanies him throughout life. Unfortunately the film fails to maintain these high standards, and ends up feeling like a series of superficial snapshots of the singer’s life, rather than a meaningful insight into the man himself.
From the point where Serge enters his adult life, the pacing of the film goes haywire. A biopic is undeniably a brave project for first-time director Joann Sfar, but it is essential in such a film to have some bearings about what stage of the character’s life is being depicted at any given moment. It is only by looking at Serge’s parents, who at one point appear to age 30 years in ten minutes of screen time, that the viewer can get to grips with the passing of time in the film. Indeed, the only major development in Serge’s character throughout the film – his descent into ill health and alcoholism – falls foul of this poor time management, as there is no explanation or build-up to his sudden plight.
Despite there being little development to Gainsbourg’s character, Elmosnino’s performance nevertheless deserves praise. He infuses Serge with both charm and awkwardness, working well within the script, which depicts the character to be equally aware of his ability to entice women as he is of his unsightly physical appearance.
Gainsbourg was renowned for his love affairs with high-profile women such as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. It would be expected then, that some time would be dedicated to exploring these relationships. The Bardot affair gets brushed aside in around ten minutes of running time, in which Laetitia Casta does a poor impression of the legendary French beauty, making her come across as little more than a superficial, fun-loving blonde, though her dance is undeniably an eye-opener. While more time is given to the Birkin relationship (it did last 11 years, after all), Lucy Gordon fails to infuse the character – and her relationship with Serge – with any urgency or substance. What were legendary love affairs in real life are reduced to trite encounters which lack any emotional depth.
Aesthetically and acoustically, Gainsbourg is a treat. Throughout the film, the viewer is flooded with the singer’s varied plethora of musical styles and sounds, which at no point reveal themselves to be dubbed. The film looks beautiful too, with the visual style always being active in supplementing the on-screen events. Sometimes sound and image combine playfully to create a self-consciously kitsch melodramatic effect à la Almodovar. The encroachment of surreal, fairy-tale elements into the narrative reality is also pleasing to behold, though it’s slightly disappointing that these fade into the background in the film’s latter stages.
Gainsbourg is a film in which every single scene is, in itself, enjoyable to watch, inevitably making it an enjoyable film. However, the weak performances of the female leads – particularly when compared to Elmosnino – and increasingly clumsy pacing mean that the viewer never really gets a deeper insight into this fascinating personality. As such, Gainsbourg is an aesthetically pleasing romp for the time that it’s running, but is quickly forgettable as soon as it ends.
Best scene: The fantasy-infused childhood scenes are delightful. It’s a shame the film fails to maintain this high standard.
Watch this if you liked: La Vie En Rose, I’m Not There.