A version of this review appeared in The Age, November 4, 2010.
The always provocative singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) might have found this biopic all too staid – though the graphic novelist turned filmmaker Joann Sfar does his best to reinvent an inflexible genre. Dwelling on Gainsbourg's boyhood in Nazi-occupied France, Sfar hints that this early experience of oppression galvanised his hero's rebellious spirit.
Well into adulthood, this Gainsbourg is haunted by a grotesque apparition known as “the mug” (Doug Jones) who simultaneously represents his artistic demon, his Jewish identity, and his sense of his moral and physical ugliness. It's a bold idea that ultimately proves more incidental than central to Sfar's script, which otherwise moves in a straightforward, linear way through most of the best-known episodes of Gainsbourg's career (the version screening in Australia is a quarter-hour shorter than the original French cut).
In appearance Elmosnino is impressively close to the real man, but he's more convincing as a charming rogue than as a genius who changed the face of pop music. Still, given the musical and biographical material at Sfar's disposal, Gainsbourg can't help being fairly good fun. One high point is a duet in an empty nightclub with the poet Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine), a celebration of friendship straight out of a Gene Kelly musical. In another terrific scene, Gainsbourg and his girlfriend Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) present their famously risque song “Je t'aime...ma non plus” to a music publisher played by the late New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who bugs his eyes with enthusiasm at the prospect of scandalising the public.