Like that other French national institution Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg is known as little more than a one-hit wonder in Britain. Although recent re-issues have gone some way to boosting his reputation here, he still seems to be rated only by serious music fans and Jarvis Cocker. I wonder whether Joann Sfar’s biopic Gainsbourg, packed with so many incredible songs, will find new fans for the singer-songwriter who died in 1991, or (as is more likely) appeal solely to those already in the know. It has to be said that such films seem to be made by fans for fans - surely a David Hasselhoff biopic would only have a market in Germany. This, of course, can lead to a somewhat uncritical approach to the subject matter, and Sfar certainly seems guilty of this.
The musical biopic is perhaps the most rigid of genres, complete with its own strange, idiosyncratic rules. Perhaps this is because until recently it included mostly made-for-TV movies, such as Summer Dreams - The Story of the Beach Boys (1990) or The Karen Carpenter Story (1989). With the exception of Todd Haynes’s Dylan and Bowie innovations (which divided audiences), the rules of the biopic seem unbreakable and Gainsbourg does not challenge them.
A musical biopic is not about what is going to happen (we usually know that), it’s about how it will happen or how it is going to be portrayed. So we sit through The Doors thinking, when is he going to flash his penis? In the Joe Meek film Telstar, we wonder, when is he going to kill his landlady? It is a genre that singularly lacks suspense. In the case of Gainsbourg - as 62 years are condensed into just over two hours - we might also wonder what is going to be left out. Will we see him sleep with Bardot? (yes) Will we see him win Eurovision (no) or make lewd propositions to Whitney Houston? (sadly, no). It’s just a waiting game.
A successful biopic depends first and foremost on the performances. These films rarely (never?) win awards for direction or writing but almost always win for acting. Recent acting Oscars have gone to Ray and La Vie en Rose while Walk the Line got a win and a nomination (losing the best male lead award to its near-cousin, the literary biopic Capote). The key is the central performance, and Gainsbourg scores full marks here. Eric Elmosnino is not only an uncanny lookalike (although I suspect prosthetic ears), but has perfected Serge’s mannerisms and movement - that perpetual slightly drunk swagger. He walks the line between charming and lewd with great skill. As with Ray and La Vie en Rose, the film itself may be average, but the central performance is outstanding.
All good biopics also need a strangely accurate performance from a talented child-actor - a portrait of the artist as a young man. Kacey Mottet Klein’s young Gainsbourg (or Lucien Ginsburg as he was known then) is a revelation. The charming little Jewish boy surviving in wartime France seems worthy of his own film. In addition, we also need a cast of instantly recognisable lookalikes in the supporting roles. Laetitia Casta’s Bardot is pretty impressive; Lucy Gordon’s Jane Birkin has straight hair and a mini-dress but doesn’t really look like her. It might seem superficial, but in this genre this is important. Many a John Lennon film has been marred by low-quality Beatles - a real distraction.
One of the strangest quirks of the genre is the soundtrack: the cast must also sing. It would be somehow inauthentic to mime to original recordings. Elmosnino’s Gainsbourg impersonation is again of the highest standard but it was Lucy Gordon’s perfectly breathy Jane Birkin that had me checking the credits at the end (yes, the songs were actually performed by the actress, who committed suicide shortly after the film was finished). Of course, it helps that the songs are great, and I enjoyed seeing the lyrics translated in the subtitles (so it’s not about lollipops!!!) and realising what a good lyricist he was.
And finally we need a convincing ‘rosebud’ - the key to understanding who he/she is. Here the key seems to be Gainsbourg’s insecurity about his strong Semitic features. Although he seems quintessentially French to the English, he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. This anxiety manifests itself as a Nazi propaganda poster chasing him down the street and an enormous caricature puppet (all nose and ears) that appears at all the wrong times.
Gainsbourg ticks all the boxes, and despite a few innovations it is a pretty traditional biopic. The pleasures of watching a musical biopic are equivalent to watching Stars in their Eyes. But if that TV show were to have a Gainsbourg special with Serge, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, France Gall and Juliette Greco impersonators (and no Matthew Kelly) I’d definitely watch it, and I’d phone in a vote for Lucy Gordon’s version of ‘Le canari est sur le balcon’.