Joann Sfar's debut film is less a biography of French provocateur musician Serge Gainsbourg than an irreverent, audacious tribute from one artist to his icon. Comic book artist Sfar bends the biopic genre to his will and that of Gainsbourg's seductive celebrity with a film that outwardly adheres to a linear, cradle-to-grave structure, but is in fact steeped in magical realism and entirely unconcerned about imparting truths of any kind.
With no dates and barely any names given, Sfar throws us into the world of a wily Jewish boy, who manages to thumb his nose at the threatening reality of the Second World War with charm and sly obsequiousness. Sfar also brings his comic book sensibilities to life, bequeathing the future Gainsbourg with an alter ego in the form of a Jewish caricature that literally steps out of an anti-Semitic poster and into his life. Ironically, this 'ugly mug' (looking like a surrealist Guillermo del Toro character and indeed played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) has all the confidence and cocksure drive that Gainsbourg lacks, and isn't afraid to go to dastardly lengths to shape their intertwined existence.
It is the 'ugly mug' that urges Gainsbourg to step away from his love of art and embrace the skills he so reluctantly learned from his lounge-musician father. Musical fame, fortune and fabulous love affairs follow, and all too soon he's being seduced by songstress Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), bombshell Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) is frolicking naked about his flat, before he settles down to marry and sing that raunchy duet with Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon).
Eric Elmosnino's uncanny resemblance and transporting performance goes a long way to traversing many of the yawning gaps in detail (and those pesky truths) Sfar has purposefully omitted from his screenplay. But that doesn't quite prevent this willfully opaque portrait from becoming frustrating in parts. While no-one can fault the sumptuous design (Sfar's artistic eye translates superbly) Gainsbourg's staggering self-indulgence — painted with the barest scrape of context — ends up feeling stifling. It's an odd storytelling decision to be sure, but one that Sfar sticks to absolutely. Instead Gainsbourg is an impressionistic rendering, a decadent celebration and a downright sexy account of a supremely talented musician, and his ugly mug.
Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 4 November 2010