“Gainsbourg, vie heroique,” a new biopic of the singer who scandalised and seduced his public in equal measure follows La vie en rose, the film that won Marion Cotillard an Oscar in 2008 for her portrayal of the tortured Piaf.
Eric Elmosnino, the relatively little-known actor who stars as Gainsbourg, achieves a remarkable resemblance, seated at the piano or slumped at the bar, his hooded eyes staring sardonically through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
But director Joann Sfar’s film, described as a “tale,” is a somewhat less conventional one than La vie en rose, doing without much explanation and showing its hero constantly arguing with a giant alter ego invisible to all but himself.
Celebrated for a profusion of inventive, witty numbers sung by performers ranging from the Left Bank chanteuse Juliette Greco to Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, was almost as famous for his hard living as he was for his music.
Born Lucien Ginzburg, the son of a Russian emigre pianist who earned his living playing in cabarets and bars, Gainsbourg studied painting before turning to popular song and gaining success in the late 1950s.
He was not conventionally handsome but had a louche charm that attracted some of the most celebrated beauties of the age and he did his best to live up to his debauched reputation as a rake and lothario.
His most famous hit, “Je t’aime moi non plus” (“I love you, me neither”), built around a languorous melody and the ecstatic sighs of Jane Birkin, the English actress who became his third wife, was denounced by the Vatican and banned on the BBC.
The song was originally recorded by Brigitte Bardot (played in the film by Laetitia Casta), but France’s most famous sex symbol then thought better of it and the version she made was kept under wraps for more than 15 years.
The film shows other notable Gainsbourg moments including a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that brought furious protests from army veterans or an indecent joke he hid in a breezy pop song written for the teenybopper France Gall.
But it spares viewers an infamous moment when he drunkenly propositioned American singer Whitney Houston on a chat show or a video in which he sprawls half clad in bed as his 14 year-old daughter Charlotte breathily chirps the hit Lemon Incest.