08/31/2011 07:44 am ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

'Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life': The Troubled Little Boy Behind The Man

No matter how many movie stars he beds, records he sells or cigarettes he smokes, inside Serge Gainsbourg is a troubled little boy.

That belief stands at the center of "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life," director Joann Sfar's fanciful, full-throated take on the life of the famous French musician. Played by Eric Elmosnino, this fictional Gainsbourg is a compelling mixture of considerable swagger and artistic vulnerability.

As a child, Gainsbourg is a small, pale boy in black, dutifully playing Chopin for his father even as he scampers around Paris, charming women and sneaking smokes. Still, Sfar makes it clear that as part of a Jewish family during World War II, Gainsbourg understood from an early age what it felt like to be hated. One day, he sees a massive poster called "The Jew and France," depicting a balloon-bodied Jewish figure with four legs, glowing eyes and a sneer. When he turns around, the creature is there.

The creature is an early version of the puppet-like figure that follows Gainsbourg throughout the rest of the film. Referred to as his mug, the figure looks like a grotesque caricature of Gainsbourg, with a face that is almost entirely taken up by his long, pointed nose. Dressed in a sharp suit and possessed of long, spindly fingers that crackle as they move, the mug is a confident charmer, even a brash bully, as he urges Gainsbourg to make the moves that will further his career.

It's a credit to Sfar that the use of this artistic double is useful, rather than indulgent. Watching the real Gainsbourg talk with his mug is an experience that feels a little like eavesdropping on someone having a conversation with his imaginary friend. Of course, the mug also serves as a useful, if obvious, metaphor for the strength of the artist's inner voice.

In keeping with its title, the movie is not so much a meticulously fact-checked recreation of the real Gainsbourg's life, but a depiction, instead, of his "heroic" life. Gainsbourg turns from impish child, to callously seductive young man, to sauntering star, to confident bohemian-chic husband, to self-destructive drunk, to grizzled old man in one continuous transformation. Sfar pieces his life together in a kind of collage, and while there are no clear separations between the stages of Gainsbourg's life, Sfar's sense of timing is remarkable. Just as one version of Gainsbourg begins to get tiresome, the movie flashes forward to the next.

Luckily for him, Elmosnino handles the changes with a canny physical grace that makes each iteration seem completely plausible. As in all movies about famous musicians, the director had to choose between whether to use original recordings, or to recreate iconic songs. Sfar does both. In some situations, the original tracks are played. In others, the actors take over.

Fortunately, Gainsbourg's heavily instrumentalized, sing-speaking is well suited to reproduction, and performed convincingly by Elmosino, who captures the intonation, emotion and charisma of the original. Lucy Gordon and Laetitia Casta are fine stand-ins for Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot as well -- their thin, breathy voices telegraph their femininity, which, in this case, seems to be all that's necessary.

The same is not quite true of Gordon and Casta's acting. Though Casta doesn't have much to do as Bardot other than flounce, pout, and toss her iconic blond hair, as Birkin, Gordon must project youthful naivete while showing off the steely backbone that kept Gainsbourg in check. Still, these women seem more like props than people. The only fully dimensional character is the one whose name is in the title.

But even Gainsbourg is less man than idea. The film gestures at the larger psychological impulses that motivate his actions, but is less than articulate about filling in the details. The child-Gainsbourg recurs periodically throughout the film, as does the image of the beach where he is first shown experiencing rejection. Towards the end of the film, sunk into a bottle of alcohol and trailed by a nearly opaque cloud of smoke, Gainsbourg head is replaced with a giant cabbage. Sfar's Gainsbourg is lonely, and complicated, and brilliant -- though that's about all he is.

This lack of insight into Gainsbourg's inner workings, however, is compensated for by the joyous energy that animates the film. In one early scene, a young Gainsbourg finds himself in Salvador Dali's apartment. The apartment is dark, bizarre, and lovely. As Gainsbourg looks around, his face reverent and determined, it's as if he's thinking to himself, This is beautiful, and then, I want this.

"Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" is marked by the same sentiment. Sfar has managed to take his pleasure in paying tribute to a personal idol and transmute it into a piece that is distinctly his own.

WATCH the trailer for "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life":