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In the beginning, Lucien Ginsberg is a mischievous child, and in the end, Serge Gainsbourg is a debauched old man, but Joann Sfar’s riff on the notorious French pop provocateur is anything but a standard biopic. Fine, so it doesn’t explode the idiom as boisterously as the Bob Dylan-inspired I’m Not There—for starters, the plot of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is linear, and it details events that, you know, actually happened—but it’s just as uninterested in the ascents, falls, and string-swelling redemptions that biopics usually peddle. Instead, Gainsbourg is a story of creativity and artifice, of how history, upbringing, insecurity, and inspiration combined to make possible one man’s music and persona. Selectively, of course: Some of Gainsbourg’s relationships seem to pass by in seconds while his affair with Brigitte Bardot climaxes with a delirious, lengthy, and sexy bedside rehearsal session. A Jew, Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) came of age in Nazi-occupied France and later invoked anti-Semitic themes in his art, and Sfar approaches that tricky dichotomy by anthropomorphizing it: A beak-nosed, monkey-eared doppelgänger emerges from one of Gainsbourg’s drawings early in the film, prodding and taunting the songwriter through a string of affairs, benders, and musical epiphanies—which are soundtracked just as manically by Gainsbourg’s compositions, from innuendo-laden chanson to a scandalous reggae version of “La Marseillaise.” If in the end the takeaway is familiar—creating such great art required no small amount of self-loating—that’s OK. It’s the art part that lasts.
The film shows all week at West End Cinema, 2301 M. St. NW. $11. (202) 419-3456.