Bristling with invention, this fast and full-on biopic of French superstar Serge Gainsbourg is rather too stylish, mashing fantasy with real events to the point that we're never sure where the truth lies. But it's eye-catching filmmaking.
Lucien Ginsburg (Mottet-Klein) was born to Jewish parents (Vasilescu and Droukarova) and, after surviving the Nazi occupation, studied art and music.
It's his skill at songwriting that propels him to stardom. Now known as Serge Gainsbourg (Elmosnino), he goes through two marriages, two children and a passionate late-1960s affair with Brigitte Bardot (Casta) before falling in love with the young British actress Jane Birkin (Gordon) and then the model Bambou (Jampanoi). His increasingly manic behaviour, fuelled by alcohol, sabotages his relationships even as it adds fire to his work.
Springing from his own comic-strip about Gainsbourg, filmmaker Sfar infuses the film with Jonze/Gondry-style visual trickery. This lushly crowded movie is a riot of clever camera angles, animation, effects work and puppetry, all bringing Gainsbourg's imagination to life. Sfar creates a pointy spectre called La Gueule (Jones) who follows Gainsbourg through life, spurring him to artistic and personal excess like a demonic muse in contrast to the more angelic Bardot, Birkin and Bambou.
This is a visually intriguing idea, but even as we understand the point quickly, Sfar keeps this up for two tiring hours. Fortunately, the actors are extremely good, especially from a casting perspective: none of them needs an introduction since they look uncannily like the person they're playing. And Elmosnino gives a surprisingly engaging performance, managing to make Gainsbourg likeable and magnetic even while indulging in his worst behaviour.
Although this is where Sfar's indulgence becomes distracting, because Gainsbourg's story is genuinely gripping, and we want to see it more clearly, without the strange omissions (no mention at all of his filmmaking career) and fantastical asides. This is a bright child who struggled to find his voice and then to keep the creative juices flowing. And his legacy, from the breathy classic Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus to his gifted daughter Charlotte, is much more iconic than this film suggests. Frankly, despite a good effort, one movie can't contain him.