Music Box Films // 2010 // 122 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // April 10th, 2012
His music was visionary. His lovers were legendary. His life was extraordinary.
French singer-songwriter, poet and artist Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was an icon in his time. He remains a legend to alternative music makers and fans. Renowned comic book artist Joann Sfar has adapted his own graphic novel into the movie Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. The unconventional biopic has some wonderfully imaginative visuals, but its narrative disappoints because it only scratches the surface of the man's psyche.
From an early age, Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein) showed talent at the piano thanks to his father's instruction. In his adolescent years, enrolled in a rural boarding school and hiding from the occupying Nazis, Lucien devoted himself to becoming a visual artist. Adopting the stage name Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino, Father of My Children) in adulthood, he finds fame dabbling in various musical styles to match his sometimes dark and sexually suggestive lyrics. Serge is accompanied, so to speak, in his life's journey by Professor Flipus (Doug Jones, Hellboy II: The Golden Army), a product of his imagination manifest as a towering puppet with grotesquely exaggerated features. Stung in adolescence when a girl told him he was too ugly, Serge is always self-conscious of his looks but that doesn't prevent him from having affairs with some of the most desirable women in the world.
Established fans of the French music icon will enjoy Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life the most because a familiarity with the trajectory of the man's life, especially his love life, will certainly make the story more coherent. Viewers with little or no knowledge of Serge Gainsbourg will have to infer the details between the big chapters of his life. The movie is a reverential treatment of his legend shown through the recreation of several "best of" tracks from his life. That isn't to say casual viewers won't be entertained by the convincing performances and Sfar's visually joyous canvas.
The director's effortless blending of the fantastical really sets this movie apart from the standard biopic. The two key puppet creations come from young Lucien's exposure to anti-Semitic poster art and his processing of his perceived ugliness. These racist caricatures become surreally oversized entities with which the boy is able to cope and interact. The enigmatic Flipus appears regularly to influence the adult Serge but whether he's a force of good or ill is vague. Sfar also demonstrates comfort at using special effects and expressive lighting to create a fairytale atmosphere. These fanciful elements are unexpected in a story based on a real person's life but I found them to be welcome creative touches. It would have been even better if they were used to provide insight into the things that inspired the man.
The women in Gainsbourg's life form a significant part of his legend but unless you've studied up on his love affairs, they will seem like a parade of beautiful but interchangeable foils. Juliette Greco, Jane Birkin, France Gall and Bambou are supposed to be recognizable women in his life but aside from a very basic understanding of who each one is (she's a singer or she's an actress) there is little effort put into fleshing them out as characters. The one woman I did recognize was Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta, Love Street) but even she enters and exits without much context to her place in the world apart from being Serge's lover. It's also startling to suddenly hear that Serge is married, to a woman I don't recall seeing earlier, and that he has children and then later he's with another high profile woman.
The movie dutifully touches on several key moments in Gainsbourg's life but the connecting contexts and motivations are missing. If someone else were holding the remote control, you'd swear they were indiscriminately skipping forward on the DVD. The soundtrack is peppered with Gainsbourg's best songs and some are performed as recording sessions or stage shows. However, there isn't much in the script to explain the evolution of his music over time. Gainsbourg effortlessly creates music out of thin air: improvising lyrics that work perfectly and apparently drawing from all sorts of styles without difficulty. That works fine for building his image as an artistic genius but it's a lazy way to portray a thoughtful and hard working musician.
The Blu-ray sports a very good AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. The image is very sharp but never distractingly so. Deep color saturation works well to lend the film a slightly hyper real atmosphere but skin tones look natural. There isn't a lot of detail in the shadows but this seems to be due to the deliberately high contrast lighting featured in many scenes. Fine film grain is barely noticeable throughout. The audio is presented on two DTS-HD Master Audio mixes (though they are not listed on the back cover art). Both the 5.1 surround mix and the 2.0 stereo mix are excellent. The dialogue sounds clear and strong while the musical numbers blend in very well whether they're supposed to be sung by the characters or heard in the background. The 5.1 option uses the surround channels to enrich the soundscape of the club scenes and some others but this isn't the kind of sound mix that is going to impress with its directional effects. In the service of this movie, featuring much dialogue and music, the audio performs very well. This is the 122-minute version of the movie and the cut that the director prefers for international release.
There are a few extras on the same Blu-ray Disc with the movie. A nine-minute making-of featurette takes you behind the scenes to hear from the director and observe the crew at work. These segments seem designed for promotional purposes so they aren't very insightful. A series of still images reproduce the storyboards for a few scenes. The artwork is by director Joann Sfar and show off his watercolor cartoon style. Close observation of these images compared against the finished sequences reveals a couple of deleted moments. The trailer is also included on this disc.
The second disc in this package is a DVD with the 43-minute documentary Joann Sfar (Drawings) directed by Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace). The film profiles the artist, following him as he goes to various locations to find subjects to draw. The camera spends a lot of time observing Sfar's hand at work so I grew to appreciate his technique and skill. Sfar also guides us through some of his finished comic strips and explains his drawing philosophy culled from his years of training. It's a straightforward and observant short documentary presented in 1.33:1 full frame with stereo sound. It's an appropriate supplement to the main feature since Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life says more about the director's motivations than that of his subject.
Fans of Gainsbourg's music may find enough in this movie to be entertained. It follows the standard music biopic checklist, making stops at some important points in the subject's life, including popular tunes in the chronicle, fitting in visits with notable people, leading to the subject's eventual decline from substance abuse. The performances are good despite thinly developed supporting characters and Eric Elmosnino is a natural in the lead role.
The imaginative visuals liven up this standard musical biopic but the script doesn't let us really know Gainsbourg. Consequently, we're relegated to the perspective of appreciative fans watching the highlights reel of his life. The subtitle of the movie is "A Heroic Life" but it seems more fitting to call this a charmed one. Gainsbourg experiences hardly any adversity in this movie. From a briefly illustrated sense of his childhood spent hiding from the Nazis, to his stumbling into career success and the parade of beautiful women who enter and exit his life, Gainsbourg drifts through his extraordinary existence seemingly too cool to really notice. Still, there's enough to appreciate in this movie to recommend a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Gainsbourg
* IMDb: Joann Sfar (Drawings)