'Gainsbourg' Brilliantly Depicts The French Musician

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The new film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is an unconventional biopic about French musician Serge Gainsbourg. He is celebrated in France for the songs he wrote, and the affairs he had with beautiful women like Brigette Bardot.


It's easy to find drama in the life of Serge Gainsbourg. He was a wildly popular French musician and a wild man, who burned money on TV and showed up drunk onstage.

Our critic Kenneth Turan says that the new film "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" uses unconventional methods to tell an unconventional story.

KENNETH TURAN: Serge Gainsbourg is best known in this country for "Je T'aime, Mol Non Plus," the racy duet he recorded with British actress Jane Birkin.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JANE BIRKIN (Actress): (Singing in French)

TURAN: Gainsbourg is celebrated in France for the songs he wrote and the affairs he had with beautiful women like Brigitte Bardot. He's also known for being a provocateur who created outrage and scandal wherever he went.

Gainsbourg is introduced in 1941 as a precocious 13-year-old so defiantly Jewish he insists on being first in line to get the yellow star Jews were mandated to wear in occupied Paris.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life")

Mr. ERIC ELMOSNINO (Actor): (as Serge Gainsbourg) (French spoken)

TURAN: On the way home, Gainsbourg walks by an anti-Semitic poster. In the film's boldest stroke, the bloated caricature on the wall comes to life and starts to follow him home. That caricature morphs into an alter-ego with an enormous nose who stays with Gainsbourg for the entire film, appealing to all his worst instincts.

Writer-director Joann Sfar, who is an acclaimed French comic book artist, won a Cesar for "Gainsbourg." To him, the songwriter's life is heroic because he lived in his own imagination and went toe-to-toe with those personal demons.

Gainsbourg never had any difficulty getting beautiful women to pay attention to him. He had a complex cocktail of personality traits and could be simultaneously arrogant and insecure, shy and domineering.

Gainsbourg's music continued to be adventurous and controversial, and never more so than when he collaborated with Jamaican stars Sly and Robbie to do a killer reggae version of French national anthem "La Marseillaise." It caused a riot when he debuted it in France.

(Soundbite of song, "La Marseillaise")

Mr. SERGE GAINSBOURG (Singer): (Singing in French)

TURAN: "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" doesn't flinch when its subject goes deeper and deeper into alcoholism and bad behavior. Filmmaker Sfar wants to give us a report from within the mind of this gifted, tortured individual, and this he brilliantly does.

(Soundbite of song)

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan, or Ken Turan, reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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