Like a rebellious child lashing out at its parents, only to return to the fold in its hour of need, Joann Sfar's film Gainsbourg enjoys a fractious, push-and-pull relationship with the biopic genre. Despite sharing crucial DNA, the picture makes quite a song and dance about differentiating itself from biopics gone by. Fortunately, it's a song and dance worth watching.
Like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Sfar has come to cinema from graphic novels. He brings to this adaptation of his book about France's grizzled and provocative singer-songwriter the visual conciseness demanded of a medium that has six or eight frames on a page, as opposed to 24 frames per second.
The film is live action, but its fragile reality keeps being overrun by cartoons and puppets, as though a fantasy world were plotting to overthrow the corporeal one. This may not be a new approach (it was used to moribund effect in Pink Floyd: the Wall), but it is undoubtedly dynamic. An animated credit sequence, in which Serge Gainsbourg soars over the rooftops of Paris and paddles past fish with Gitanes dangling from their mouths, serves notice that we are not about to watch The Great Caruso.
Should the message still not have got through, the portrayal of Gainsbourg's childhood in occupied France sets us straight. These early scenes are dominated by a yellow-eyed, four-armed, anti-Semitic caricature that tears itself free from a Nazi propaganda poster and confronts young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein). If the creature, which resembles a Weeble experimented on by a deranged scientist, is a parody of Lucien's Jewishness, it's one that the boy cheerfully rehabilitates. Discovering that the monster imitates his movements, he breaks into a jerky pantomime to see if it will follow his lead. When it lies in bed beside him, it represents nothing more threatening than a highly impractical teddy bear. In such ways do we see Lucien (later Serge) first neutralise the hostility of others and make a virtue of what the film refers to as his "ugly mug".
That mug has found its double in the actor Éric Elmosnino, whose bleary, hooded eyes, onion-shaped head and wing-mirror ears are so fiercely Gainsbourgian that it wouldn't be a shock if Sfar later confessed to links to the cloning industry. Elmosnino fully earns his wage, revealing the vulnerability in a man who often concealed it; he also functions as the movie's compass amid all the hallucinations and alter egos.
The Weeble gives way in adulthood to a spindly, life-sized marionette, part muse and part troublemaker, which recalls Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher. It forces Gainsbourg to play for an audience of children orphaned by the concentration camps, but it also practises tough love, setting fire to his canvases to shanghai him into defecting from painting to music.
It is curious that, in among these bursts of fantasy, the familiar furrows of the chronological biopic are still being ploughed. We get to see Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) improvising a bare-bones run-through of "Bonnie and Clyde" and we hear the first eight, tingly notes of "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus" picked out on the piano. Both scenes are close cousins of that moment of miraculous creation (the crossed-out manuscript, the screwed-up paper in the wastebasket) that has become a biopic cliché.
What the picture sometimes lacks is the rusty hangover feeling of Gainsbourg's best recordings; in the spick-and-span dives where he drinks and performs in the film, you catch a whiff of Nicorette rather than nicotine. At least the upside of Sfar's expressionistic style, in which an intimate bedroom scene can be lit like a nightclub striptease, is that it saves the film from becoming an inventory of songs composed, women seduced and stubble cultivated.
The death last year of the young actor Lucy Gordon, who makes a fine, farm-fresh Jane Birkin, adds a note of sadness and it is touching that Sfar has dedicated Gainsbourg to her. The film points encouragingly to this director's future. Few of us will leave the cinema without thinking: Sfar, so good.