A biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer best known abroad for his raunchy 1969 classic Je t aime, moi non plus, hits cinemas across Europe this week but its release is overshadowed by the suicide of the British actress who played his muse.
Serge Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique (A Heroic Life) takes a poignant look at the hard-drinking and lascivious life of a singer who defined music and pop culture in France from the 1960s until his death at the age of 62 in 1991.
Made by first-time director Joann Sfar, the film is the latest in a wave of French biopics of celebrities whose highlight was La vie en rose that scooped a 2008 Oscar for Marion Cotillard for her role as the tormented Edith Piaf.
The film by Sfar, who previously worked as a comic book artist, adopts an elliptical, non-linear narrative structure to portray the life of a singer whose career shocked and seduced the French in almost equal measure.
The little known stage actor Eric Elmosnino takes the title role as the adult Gainsbourg, whose life began in Paris as Lucien Ginsburg, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.
The film follows his adolescence in Nazi-occupied Paris, where as a Jew he was obliged to wear a yellow star on his clothes and where he narrowly managed to escape being sent to an extermination camp.
When the war ended in 1945 he began an unsuccessful stint as a painter but ended up a singer in piano bars. His musical career didn t take off until he was in his 30s.
He began with fairly traditional chansons but quickly began to experiment and over the next 30 years would produce work that ranged from jazz to pop and reggae and, in the 1980s, electronic.
Gainsbourg is still hugely popular in France.
Most of his work, which often features morbid or sexual themes, never gained the global notoriety of the raunchy duet Je t aime, but has nevertheless influenced contemporary bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Placebo and Portishead.
Gainsbourg originally recorded Je t aime – whose explicit lyrics and female orgasmic groaning led to bans in many countries and public denunciation by the Vatican – with Brigitte Bardot, played by Laetitia Casta in the film.
But she backed out and he made a new version with the English actress Jane Birkin, with whom he would later have a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Many critics see Jane Birkin as the main love interest in the life of the chain-smoking Gainsbourg, who was known as a great seducer despite looks that might politely be described as aesthetically challenged.
In Sfar s 130-minute movie she is played by Lucie Gordon, a British actress who apparently committed suicide last May by hanging herself in her Paris flat shortly after shooting the film.
The director has dedicated his film to the Gordon, who had previously acted in Spider-Man 3 and in French films.
Sfar at first sought to cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as her father but the actress declined.
The director had his actors sing all the numbers in his movie themselves, with varying results. But overall critical reaction in France and in Britain has been positive. -AFP