LOOKING FOR AN OBSERVANT, informative biopic on songwriter/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg? Keep looking. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is the furthest thing from a clear-eyed look at the French chanteur; the only thing it deigns to reveal about its subject is that Gainsbourg's filmmaker is obsessed with him. That filmmaker is French comics artist Joann Sfar, making the leap to directing by adapting his comic to film. It's an audacious, experimental movie that, unlike Todd Haynes' deconstructionist Bob Dylan flick I'm Not There, flounders under its own ambition.
Visually, Gainsbourg is striking, and in the film's first few stages its roundabout narrative approach is invigorating. As played by Eric Elmosnino, Serge Gainsbourg is an affable but impenetrable chap, full of bumbling insecurities about both his music and his desirability. This is a fine foundation for a picture about an unexceptional-looking songwriting hack who transformed himself into a ladies' man. But the plot points of Gainsbourg's life are overlooked in favor of Sfar's infatuation with what it would be like to actually be Gainsbourg—for example, his famed affair with Brigitte Bardot (played by Laetitia Casta) is never explained, but we are treated to a lengthy, silly scene in which Sfar offers no dramatic information, and, instead, indulges his fantasy of what it would be like to be in the room with them.
Throughout the movie, a tall, thin, ghoulish alter ego with long, spidery fingers and an immense schnozz follows Gainsbourg. This creature is played by Doug Jones (responsible for similar creatures in Guillermo del Toro's movies), and I wish I could tell you why he's in the movie. I think he's meant to symbolize Gainbourg's insecurities, but he also acts as Gainsbourg's cruel and lusty id. Like the rest of Gainsbourg, he's window dressing—a visual distraction from the actual story.