The chronologically organized story begins with Gainsbourg as Lucien Ginsburg, born in Paris, 1928 to Russian Jewish émigrés. Growing up in the anti-Semitic, Vichy regime, Lucien, soon to be called Serge, braggadociously hurries to get his yellow star while also pursued in several imaginary confrontations by a figure with an exaggerated balloon head that satirizes the anti-Semitic caricatures of the time. Paralleling this figure, later in his life Serge is shadowed by another alter ego, a lanky man with a big nose and huge ears, an amplification of the ugly figure Serge considered himself.
All three together—both alter egos and Serge himself—embody the range from naive to urbane, charming to insulting, appealing to appalling. A self-described Gainsbourg fanatic, Sfar presents a strong implicit and explicit commentary on the social milieu and Gainsbourg's place within it, both as anti-Semitic target and self-indulgent exploiter. However, Sfar softens considerably the sexist elements, playing for ribald humor Serge's preoccupation with nude female models and his explicit sketches. He was, indeed, a ladies man, involved with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, among many other famous women, but all but erased from this sympathetic portrayal is his ugly, reprehensible behavior to sexual partners, celebrities, and ordinary people.
This is a fairytale but it is disingenuous to elide such details and play for humor, a characteristic of several current biopics: J. Edgar and Iron Lady among them. The film Gainsbourg does gain strength and quality in tracing his musical ascendance to popular culture idol in France, and Sfar's surrealistic choices add immense appeal. In French with English subtitles at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 p.m. from Sunday, December 11th through Thursday, December 15th. For more information and the current schedule, you may call 314-968-7487 or go to the web site.