Gainsbourg and his weird puppet psyche take wearing your heart on your sleeve to a new level.
Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life starts with an adorable, rebellious eight–year–old Jewish boy in WWII France, a combination that seems designed to make the audience fall in love with the protagonist.
But this little boy is Lucien ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg, future famous musician and angry, self–destructive man. So even on the outset, it’s hard to bond with the title character.
Gainsbourg is a talented painter whose father pushes him towards the piano. Since he’s brimming with creativity, he also happens to be an excellent musician. As Gainsbourg ascends to fame, he is literally followed and increasingly dominated by a giant puppet–like stand–in for his ailing psyche: Professor Flipus. There’s a distracting squeaky sound effect as the odd figure, with long pointy fingers and an exaggerated nose, walks behind Gainsbourg like an unwelcomed shadow. Using the puppet as a symbol for Gainsbourg’s internal pain makes it very clear that this is a man dealing with some sort of mental illness. Unfortunately, the audience loses a true understanding of Gainsbourg’s situation because human suffering becomes a creepy puppet and our protagonist reluctantly bends to its will.
The most endearing part of the film is Gainsbourg’s relationship with his parents. As a child, his father harshly molds him into a pianist, but as an adult, they blush and giggle when they talk on the phone to his then–girlfriend, Brigitte Bardot. Gainsbourg’s slew of lovers may have each been enchanting, but taken all together in a two–hour movie, the pattern is more boring than anything else: see another beautiful woman, bed her, fight with her and start again. Even if the romances are supposed to be inspiring, Gainsbourg begins to seem cold and mechanical in the way he treats other people.
Scene for scene, the movie is fine: just fine. But, after everything, the jazzy piano music, shots of Paris and impersonations of the 20th century’s most compelling women provide enough to keep the audience entertained — even if watching the main character spiral out of control is more uncomfortable than tragic.
Directed by: Joann Sfar
Starring: Eric Elmosnino
130 min. Not rated.
See if you liked: La Vie en Rose (2007)
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens Friday, Nov. 11 at Ritz at the Bourse