Women, poetry, cigarettes and music. The life of Serge Gainsbourg was made for film. This is, after all, a man who had sex on Salvador Dali’s sofa.
Joann Sfar’s biopic is not just about sex. We are also served a slice of Gainsbourg’s dark and prurient psychological state. If Freud had ever got his hands on the chain-smoking Frenchman, he might have come up with something like this. Parts of the young Lucien’s psyche are peeled from inside his head and brought to life as puppets or animation. There is the rotund head-body that captures his reaction to the anti-Semitism of the day, the childishly inked line drawings of red haired, naked women, and there are even smoking fish. The star of this unconscious gang has to be the sinister Monsieur Phillipo, a nine foot, spindle fingered doppelganger who is forever luring Serge away from familial responsibilities. It is Phillipo who orchestrates the photo shoot that depicts Gainsbourg sprawled in bed smoking and drinking just after a heart attack... he is like a malevolent, media savvy Jiminy Cricket.
Aside from the puppets and the music, the main theme of the film lies with Serge’s love affairs. Philanderer doesn’t even come close. This is the man who had his then wife drive him to a rendezvous with another woman because he never learnt (“you can’t drink and drive and I have chosen”). Perhaps reflecting life, the film never strays too far from the surface of these infamous relationships. We get the froth and glitter of Bardot and Birkin, but are not left with any greater understanding of what actually happened. Instead we are offered a salacious montage of long legs, long hair, the occasional nipple, and Serge chain-smoking. Bardot is suitably egotistical and sensual and Jane Birkin is played to gamine perfection by the late Lucy Gordon.
The film does not falter in its renditions of his music either, all songs are the originals, and all are featured effectively. From the touching and comic Russian folk song played to Jewish orphans as Gainsbourg dances at the front of the classroom, to the eyebrow raising embarrassment of when he and Jane first play Je t’aime to their manager. Éric Elmosnino is sexy, stubborn and ultimately tragic as Serge, and renders his relationship with his parents with particular tenderness. The film peters out rather disappointingly, but this too could be said to echo life. It is still an extremely pleasurable and charming watch.