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A Surge In Serge Gainsbourg’s legend

Except for the time Meryl Streep played a rabbi, the coolest man with an accent on screen, as of next week, will be Serge Gainsbourg. The French composer of hypnotic jazz-pop in the 1960s is the subject of GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE, in which Eric Elmosnino plays the guy complete with all his quirks and multitalents.

Throwing out any semblance of the typical biopic genre, the film goes for expressionism, with shots of Gainsbourg as a cabbage head (long story) and also many scenes with the recurring character of Ugly Man, Gainsbourg’s alter ego, who haunts the composer and generally brings him down. Oh, by the way, Ugly Face is a big-nosed marionette! Writer/director Joann Sfar didn’t stick strictly to the facts because, as he has said, “I wanted to make a film full of lies because I love lies…I always do a great deal of documentary research beforehand and then purposely forget half of what I learned. Then I take my subject and turn him into a legendary hero.”

At least he’s honest. And the important things are in there: The anti-Semitism (Gainsbourg grew up in Nazi-occupied Paris); the relationship with Brigitte Bardot, with whom he recorded a blasé tune about Bonnie and Clyde; The marriage to Jane Birkin, who left after thirteen tumultuous years together; the constant cigarettes and endless time spent horizontal in bed.

And there’s lots of Gainsbourg’s music, which I always found seductive and a bit wonderfully perverse. His tunes lull you as if they were airport lounge music, but if you listen more closely you catch the devilish twists. “Je t’aime…Moi NonPlus,” his most famous hit, translates as “I love you…Me neither” and comes compete with female orgasming sounds. (It was way ahead of Donna Summer.) His reggae version of “Le Marseillaise” upset people all over again. And another of his famously deadpan lyrics goes “Before turning on the gas, she thinks of her canary.”

Gainsbourg’s interpreted life floats by like a song, and Laetitia Casta is a wow as Bardot, which would seem like an impossible part to cast. With the equally arresting Birkin, Gainsbourg had a daughter, Charlotte, who’s clearly carried on his legacy, having won a Cannes Best Actress award for genitally mutilating herself (and doing some of that on her husband, too) in Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST. Sounds like a whole other heroic life waiting to be captured on film.