Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Can Cowardice Be Heroic?


01 September 2011| No Comments on Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life     by Sean Chavel


Amorphous and nondescript. I tried hard for more than an hour to find something to like in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, something to intellectually peruse, and every time I came close I became disappointed. Just because some expressionistic scenes show Gainsbourg composing songs, writing agitprop poetry and painting doesn’t mean we get who he is if we don’t see him performing before a live audience. If you don’t know anything about Serg Gainsbourg, like I didn’t, then I don’t know how you can come out of this film and really know his work or get how famous he was.

I found Eric Elmosnino’s performance as Gainsbourg in the first half to be surprisingly passive (he doesn’t match with the jubilant boy actor who comes on as Serg in the terrific beginning childhood scenes). He becomes an all-consuming hedonist. He is not engaging with the movie audience but in a strange way the film works for awhile as a portrait of an egocentric man who lived for himself and on the whim. But he becomes cretinous by the end.

“Gainsbourg” has no insight into a horrible and self-destructive man, unlike “Raging Bull” where we got a powerful insight into that kind of man. The director Joann Sfar (in his first film) doesn’t look down and study a horrible man, he thinks he’s celebrating him just by letting us see the warts.

Harshly and bluntly, I don’t understand this director Sfar or understand film artists like him. On the basis of this film, his work is very pseudo-intellectual. And nebulous. Not only is Gainsbourg deplorable, he is cowardly. That’s right: I can say that I saw NOT a hero, but a coward. Especially when he shoots a gun into the floor in front of his children because he’s agitated by his wife’s questions of, “What are you doing?”

All of this reminds me of the Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez vanity project “El Cantante” (2006) a few years ago, which comes on like an appreciation of a man and his new wave of music but really over-emphasizes what an @#!*% he was. And “El Cantante” I think is a better film! Not only is Gainsbourg an @#!*% , we hardly see him perform. Sfar could have put on more concert scenes at least in an avante-garde way, but he only provides us with a couple – both are baffling. I must assume there was a money budget problem.

That said, the stylistic high-key lighting is very avante-garde, very nostalgically textured in a way that reminded me of the surreal world of “Amelie,” (2001) that fabled French film from a decade ago. All I can think of is the promise. The scenes that show him having a brief fling with Brigitte Bardot comes alive – I thought the movie was going to work up from there (Laetitia Casta plays the famous blonde bombshell). But there’s no denying that I came out of this movie depressed. That’s right, emotionally depressed.

If you know something about Serg Gainsbourg, only you might get something out of this.

130 Minutes. Unrated.


Film Cousins: “The Last Metro” (1980, France); “Amelie” (2001, France); “El Cantante” (2007); La Vie en Rose” (2007, France).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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