Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

A couple of years ago, a friend and I were hanging out in his apartment. We were waiting for a few guys from Stockholm on their way down here to the civilization, and we decided to kill some time by checking out a DVD with all of Brigitte Bardot’s music videos — or whatever the equivalent to videos were called back in the 1960s. The people from Stockholm got extremely delayed, so we managed to watch the whole Bardot DVD (plus one with The Cramps and one with Motörhead).

Serge Gainsbourg was born in 1928 and passed away in ‘91, and I can’t say I know very much about his life. When I think about it, I haven’t heard very much of the music he made — he was rarely played on the radio over here, at least not when I grew up, and when his compositions are played, it’s always the same classics performed along with Bardot or Jane Birkin. But I’m of course familiar with Gainsbourg’s reputation for being a bad boy; I’m more familiar with that than his music.

After having seen this depiction of the man’s life, I can’t say I know that much more about who he really was.


One of my favorite Swedish movies, is “The Adventures of Picasso” (1978), in which legendary comedians, authors, directors and entertainers Hasse Alfredson and Tage Danielsson claim they tell a thousand affectionate lies about the artist. When I see the French movie “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”, I’m reminded of the Picasso movie. Hasse & Tage also used Per Åhlin’s animations and decors to create a dreamy, surreal world — and this new French movie also contains several animated scenes and dreamy sets. To emphasize the similarity, “Gainsbourg” ends with a quote by a person — I don’t remember who it was — who says he isn’t interested in Gainsbourg’s life, but in Gainsbourg’s lies about his life.

So, the question is how close to the truth Joann Sfar’s movie is. The way it’s made clearly states that it’s a tale packed with exaggerations. If you expect a straight biography about the life of Lucien Ginsburg (which was his real name), you’ll be disappointed. Sfar is using the big palette with the most spaced out colors.

Already before the (amazing animated) opening titles, Gainsbourg smokes his first cigarette; as a little kid in the 1930s he find a burning cigarette butt on the beach. Starting there, he chain-smokes through-out the movie.


Little Lucien is living in a Jewish home, he’s forced to learn how to play the piano by his parents, and he studies to become an artist at the art academy, where he according to this movie is the youngest student and therefore not allowed to paint naked women, which is what his classmates do. But the little kid does his best to check out some nudity anyway — and even tries to seduce the more than twice as old model.

As a child, he’s very forthright, he does what he wants to do and says what he wants to say. He’s the first one to go and get his copy of the yellow star the Nazis demand the Jews to wear, and in his vivid imagination, a grotesque caricature of a Jew steps out from a German propaganda poster and follows him during the rest of his life. Soon another imagined character appears; Gainsbourg’s dark side — a tall, skinny, big-nosed version of Gainsbourg, based on his own self portraits. This giant marionette — who kind of looks like a grotesque Vincent Cassel — pops up at regular intervals and conversates with our main character.


Gainsbourg starts performing in bars and suddenly he breaks through as a composer, and before we know it, he’s collaborating with Brigitte Bardot and later Jane Birkin. How all this happens in never explained. Nothing is explained. Who the Brit Birkin really is, is never made clear, she just shows up in this movie. It’s not until near the end, after she’s left Serge, she’s mentioned as “Jane” in one scene.

Maybe Sfar assumes that the audience already knows everything about Serge Gainsbourg. Maybe you have to be French to be able to relate to the events. “Gainsbourg” is basically just one long string of slightly surreal scenes.

And of music and musical-like elements.

And of an incredible bunch of astonishingly beautiful women.

What’s negative is that I found the almost pretentious, very French touch with, among other things, the imaginary characters (which are computer generated and/or actors wearing grotesque masks) pretty irritating. The scrawny, big-nosed version of Gainsbourg behaves like a damn mime! And sometimes it’s all far too theatrical, and some attempts at humor are quite horrible.


But “Gainsbourg” is a very good looking movie and it features quite a lot of pretty cool music — and some very odd songs I’ve never heard, like “Nazi rock”.

… And then we have all of the babes. Hubba-hubba! I got sweaty all over. Not only are they great looking, they’re often naked as well. We’re talking lots of boobs here, lots of long legs, lots of very short dresses. Jane Birkin is introduced with a close-up of her naked butt. I guess some people would call this a sexist film, but hey, I sure don’t complain! Hell, I could watch a five hour movie if it only featured French hotties who can’t afford buying clothes. Unfortunately, Gainsbourg also decides to show his willy a couple of times. Argh!

Éric Elmosnino gives what I suppose is a rather correct portrait of Serge Gainsbourg, but during the main part of the movie, he looks like a horny, chain-smoking Mr. Bean. Lucy Gordon is the beauty who plays Birkin, while Bardot is interpreted by Laetitia Casta. According to the closing titles, it’s the actors themselves who performs the songs.

“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” played Europe in 2010, and opened theatrically in the States on August 31, 2011.


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