I knew nothing about French musician Serge Gainsbourg before watching this biopic, and it’s possible I still may not really know much, since this is a highly stylized, fictionalized version of his life. Still, the movie is a delightful and sexy ode to the man and his art.
The film starts with Gainsbourg’s childhood in Nazi-occupied France. Despite being Jewish, Gainsbourg managed to get a good art education in painting and music. He was also rather precocious with the ladies. He eventually focused on the music and the women, and it’s hard to say which he is more famous for. For him, the music and the seductions were practically inseparable. He bedded and wrote songs for such famous beauties as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. He eventually became an infamous drunkard and died at 62, leaving behind a rich, influential body of French pop music.
“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” focuses on Gainsbourg’s inner life, particularly through the use of an imaginary friend who follows him around his whole life. The character, whom Gainsbourg refers to as “my ugly mug,” has a gigantic nose and represents Gainsbourg’s strongly Jewish features, which he must have been made very aware of growing up under Nazi occupation. In the film, this “mug” represents the voice in Serge’s head driving him to be a better musician, but also tempting him to leave whomever his current woman is to seek freedom and new conquests. There are periods when Gainsbourg is able to deny his worst tendencies for a while, but in the end his Mug always gets his way.
There are some books and movies that just perfectly capture what it is to be an artist, both the good and the bad. “The Doors” does this for Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” does it for her and Robert Maplethorpe. “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is one of these. The film eloquently depicts the man’s triumphs and failures not just as formative events that made him a great artist, but as the natural consequence of his being an artist to the core. For anyone who enjoys artsy films and experimental music and doesn’t mind reading subtitles (The movie is in French.), I highly recommend this one.
4 stars out of 5