Sometimes it's easier for life to imitate art than vice versa—witness French cartoonist Joann Sfar's first feature, an ambitious attempt to cage the career of legendary French singer-songwriter-scamp Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91), né Lucien Ginsburg, within the confines of a commercial showbiz biopic. Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is itself somewhat heroic in its desire to bend the genre's bars. Far less conventional than the international hit La vie en rose (Edith Piaf) but in no way as daring as I'm Not Here (Bob Dylan), it's basically a fantasy of Gainsbourg's life. Still, for all the 40-year-old filmmaker's interpolated animations and puppets, for the insouciant, slapdash tone that characterizes his graphic novels, and for his protagonist's proclivity for scandal, the movie is too timidly conceived by half.
Engaging if ploddingly linear, Gainsbourg tracks its subject's progress from brash, precocious brat, a Jewish child in occupied France with a cigarette already dangling from his lip, to—as embodied by versatile look-alike and credible song and dance man Eric Elmosnino—the pop-culture provocateur whose calculated outrages ranged from the widely banned, Pope-condemned, heavy-breathing love duet "Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus" to the "Nazi" concept album Rock Around the Bunker to a reggae version of "La Marseillaise" that drove French chauvinists mad. (Eulogized by French president Mitterrand as "our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire," Gainsbourg was, in the end, lionized.) Gainsbourg is less a movie than a pageant with a posh, retro look. As the saga unfurls, Elmosnino's hyperactive piano-player encounters a small galaxy of well-cast celebrities, beginning with the boozy chanteuse Fréhel (Yolande Moreau). Gainsbourg is later pursued by existentialist icon Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis); attended by a talking black cat; declared formidable by the literary bon vivant Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine), himself a promising movie subject; and adopted by the popular vocal group Les Frères Jacques (Le Quatuor).
Fri., Nov. 4, 6 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 5, 3:50 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 6, 3:50 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 7, 6 p.m.; Tue., Nov. 8, 6 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 9, 6 p.m., 2011