Written and directed by comic book impresario Joann Sfar in 2010 (making this his directorial debut feature), Gainsbourg - a Heroic Life (or, if you prefer the original language title, Gainsbourg -Vie Heroique) takes on the fairly unfilmable life of the late, great French musician, singer, songwriter and ladies man Serge Gainsbourg. The film begins during the German occupation of France during the Second World War where a young man named Lucien Ginsburg (Kacien Mottet Klein) studies art and hopes to be a painter despite the incessant pestering from his father that he learn to play the piano. Eventually the young boy grows up (at which point he's played by Eric Elmosnino) and makes a meager living as a piano player in a nightclub, and once his music career takes off, he gives up painting.
Through chance, Lucien makes some valuable connections within the French music industry and soon takes on the name Serge Gainsbourg as he starts writing a string of hits for popular artists of the day. Eventually his work catches the eye Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis) and then later of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). The two have a highly publicized love affair and record together a scandalous love song entitled Je T'aime... Mai Non Plus that, at the insistence of Bardot's husband, is shelved. His short lived fling with the biggest sex symbol of his day over, Gainsbourg begins a romance with a young English actress named Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon who tragically committed suicide after principal photography wrapped) who he meets on a movie set. They hit it off, though Serge becomes jealous when she co-stars alongside Alain Delon in a movie and carries a gun to the set. Like all of his other romances, however, this wouldn't last forever and eventually Jane breaks up with him. He heads to Jamaica to record a cover of the French national anthem that causes him some controversy upon his return, and then he eventually meets the last woman he would be with, Bambou (Mylene Jampanoi). Throughout all of this Serge is plagued by his own problems with substance abuse which would eventually take his life.
A beautiful looking film, Gainsbourg - a Heroic Life takes some interesting liberties with the 'legend of Gainsbourg' and plays them up to great effect, contrasting his womanizing ways with internal conversations between the actual Serge as played by Elmosnino and a grotesque living caricature of him played by Doug Jones (of Hellboy) fame in a hideously exaggerated mask that Serge refers to as his mug. This allows the audience to see the inner turmoil Gainsbourg no doubt felt throughout various stages of his career and also allows Sfar to show how he would eventually give in to what basically represents his dark side. There are plenty of moments where Sfar's background in comic book illustration dominate the film, the best example being a scene where the mug flies Serge out of his wife's bed to sleep with another woman on the other side of town, but it never takes you out of the movie, instead it just serves to reinforce what a larger than life character the real Gainsbourg really was. There are also plenty of Sfar's illustrations used in place of Gainsbough's own art used well in the early part of the film where the stage is set for young Lucien to become the womanizer older Serge really was, compensating for his unattractive physical features with charm, talent and sex appeal.
The performances are strong across the board with Elmosnino, under some very well made makeup appliances, doing a pretty impressive job of turning into the instantly identifiable Gainsbourg both in his early days and, under more makeup, in his later years. He brings that sense of rebelliousness to the character that is so important but doesn't downplay the more tragic side of his personality in the process. Laetitia Casta and Lucy Gordon are strong in their supporting roles as is Anna Mouglalis though their transformations into their respective characters is never quite as convincing or deep as Elmosnino's is. The music is also, of course, a big part of the movie and handled very well here - the right songs are played at the right times for and by the right people, nothing feels out of place in the film in that regard.
Where the movie stumbles is in the details. So many important parts of Gainsbourg's life are either touched on only briefly or left out entirely. One minute he's married to his first wife and they've got some kids and the next minute he's got Bardot's legs wrapped around his face and there isn't enough of a bridge in between for it to always make sense. As good as the film is, and it's great, there are problems with the structure and the editing and the flow that keep it out of 'masterpiece' territory. While the picture was made for a French audience who would no doubt be more familiar with the man's life than those who live outside the country that loved Gainsbourg as a national treasure, the fact is that it can at times be just slightly harder to follow than it should have been.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life debuts on Blu-ray in North America in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer in its proper aspect ratio of 2.35.1 and all in all it looks very good. Detail is nice and sharp for most of the film without looking artificially boosted while color reproduction is frequently gorgeous. Close up shots show all the stubble in Elmosnino's face and strong black levels and good shadow detail result in some very atmospheric and moody shots looking very impressive. There are no issues with heavy edge enhancement nor are there any problems with compression artifacts to note. The picture is crisp and clear throughout, and anyone interested in the film should be quite pleased with the transfer.
Though the packaging for the release doesn't state this, there are both 5.1 and 2.0 options available on the disc in French language DTS-HD Master Audio format with optional subtitles provided in English only. The 5.1 track sounds excellent, particularly when the music kicks in (which is often, as it should be for a movie like this). Dialogue is well balanced and rear channel activity is busy without ever sounding gimmicky or forced. Bass response is good, you'll notice it throughout the movie, and the levels are very nicely balanced from start to finish. There are no issues with hiss or distortion to complain about, and the track shows great depth and range throughout the movie.
Extras on the first disc kick off with a ten minute Behind The Scenes featurette (which is actually made up of a series of shorter featurettes through there is no play all option, they're just cut together) that gives us a look at the various performers getting into character and shows off the sets and locations used. We get a chance to see the director at work and even get to see him do some illustrations on the outside walls of Gainsbourg's notoriously graffiti covered home in Paris. This could have gone more in depth for sure but it's interesting enough that you'll want to watch it. Also interesting to see is a Storyboard Collection in which we get a chance to see Joann Sfar's water color illustrations and see how they compare to a few stills from the movie. A theatrical trailer for the feature, animated menus and chapter stops round out the first disc in the set.
On the second disc, a DVD not a Blu-ray, there's a forty-five minute long documentary about Sfar that doesn't really have anything to do with Gainsbourg but which is nevertheless an interesting watch. It fills us in on his career as a comic book illustrator and lets him talk about his technique, his influences, his style and other related topics. It would have probably been more interesting to see a documentary on Gainsbourg himself included here instead but this is well made, well put together and worth watching.
Gainsbourg - A Heroic Life might jump around too often and too quickly to effectively draw in those not already familiar with the late sensation's actual biography, as it leaves some rather large holes in his story but as an artistic interpretation of his life and his work, the film is an immense success. Elmosnino's lead performance is excellent while the supporting cast all deliver strong work as well. The film is periodically an exercise in style over substance but somehow that's fitting and you definitely get the impression Serge would approve. Music Box's Blu-ray looks and sounds great and while it won't blow you away with extras, it contains enough bonus material that this release definitely comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.