Brave, stubborn and unapologetic, Serge Gainsbourg revelled in his divisive status as a French icon, and he’d have loved this prickly biopic, which colours his character with both charm and venom in equal measures. Boldly directed by Joann Sfar, more commonly known for new-wave Franco-Belgian comics, this could well be the most striking debut of the year. Full of brash strokes, imaginative set pieces and daring scripting, Gainsbourg doesn’t pull any punches, the man and movie arm in arm.

Sprawling and episodic we follow Gainsbourg through his childhood fantasies (persecuted for his Judaism, he escapes through playfulness) to full blown fantasies (getting his mitts on Bridgette Bardot, much to his fathers astonishment). It’s this character development that startles, the film changing tone from enchanting innocence reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are to eccentric abandon, recalling the recent Bob Dylan fest, I’m Not There. A fantastical journey, Sfar takes us from boy to man introducing Gainsbourg’s alter ego La Gueule to illustrate his corrupt personality and mischievous nature – a grotesque puppet played handsomely by Doug Jones who should be used to dressing up by now having been the Pale Man in Pans Labyrinth. La Gueule coaxes Gainsbourg from his insecurities confirming the singer’s Casanova status and catapulting his schnozzle to superstardom.

If you’re going to record ‘Je t’aime…Moi Non Plus’, arguably the sexiest song ever written, then you’re going to get a lot of action and Gainsbourg gets it in droves. From his delightful teenage flirtations with a nude model (Anna Mouglalis) to his rambunctious relationship with Bridgette Bardot (played rather hysterically by Laetitia Casta), it’s the women around him that shape Gainsbourg. None more so than Jane Birkin or ‘little Miss England’, whom the Frenchman settles and finds some kind of peace with. As Birkin, Lucy Gordon steals every scene and her untimely death soon after the film’s release tempers the production in sadness, its already melancholic tone amplified by her suicide. Sfar and Gordon dazzle but its Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg himself who shines the brightest, a thrilling performance that encapsulates the singer’s charismatic je ne sais quoi.

By Ian Roebuck

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Originally published in issue 20 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. August 2010