Why make a film about Serge Gainsbourg?

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Nina Caplan remembers the bawdy life and times of France's great pop icon and human chimney, Serge Gainsbourg, ahead of new biopic 'Gainsbourg'

The French, who are better at talking about sex than the English, refer to la petite mort – the ‘little death’ of orgasm, a cunning linguistic blending of the essence of life and its opposite. For most people, that sensation is short-lived – but the French singer Serge Gainsbourg set up camp there, which is why he, too, was short-lived, collapsing under a weight of drink, Gitanes, notoriety and promiscuity in 1991, aged 62.

Considering that Gainsbourg thought each drag on a cigarette offered the equivalent of a mini-orgasm, and that he compared a wife unfavourably with a cigarette (the former would leave him, the latter would console him), it seems entirely possible that his lasting even that long on this earth is proof that, as he sang with Catherine Deneuve, God is a smoker of Havana cigars.

Gainsbourg was reliably impossible: his behaviour makes the young Dennis Hopper look as sweet as France Gall, the blonde pop-ette so innocent that when Serge wrote her a song about lollipops, she believed she was singing about sucking sweets. His capacity for manipulating words is one reason he’s less than popular here: the verbal cleverness is untranslatable. The man was a walking double entendre, in every sense: timid yet arrogant, taboo-breaking yet punctual, self-hating yet obsessed with image, a failed painter turned successful singer-songwriter with a foul mouth and a poet’s mind.

It’s no surprise he created a song about the world’s most notorious doppelgangers (‘Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde’) nor that, in later life, he invented an evil alter ego, Gainsbarre. ‘Quand Gainsbarre se bourre, Gainsbourg se barre’ (‘When Gainsbarre gets pissed, Gainsbourg gets lost’), he announced, playing language like a banjo.

Joann Sfar, the cartoonist whose first feature film is an imaginative reconfiguration of the singer’s life, has Gainsbourg’s guele (translated as his ‘ugly mug’, although it is actually slang for mouth – ‘ta guele’ is a forceful version of ‘shut up’ – which is more appropriate) follow him around from an early age. A monster with giant ears and nose, he functions on several levels: as warped self-image, Falstaffian devil and anti-Semitic parody (‘I grew up under a lucky yellow star,’ the man born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian Jews in Paris in 1928, and forced by the Nazis to wear a star of David, once commented).

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Singers like Gall, Juliette Gréco and Françoise Hardy popularised his songs in the 1960s, but those dodgy lollipops had given him the taste for notoriety, and while most men would consider an affair with the world’s most desirable woman to be infamy enough, in 1968 Gainsbourg persuaded then lover Brigitte Bardot to record ‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’ (‘I Love You… Me Neither’) so that the world wouldn’t just read about his coup: thanks to the sounds that provide the song’s climax, they could join in.

Bardot prevented him releasing the song, so he re-recorded it with English actress Jane Birkin, in a studio in Marble Arch – although listeners could be forgiven for imagining it was taped in a brothel. (According to Birkin, his response would have been that if they’d been making love, it would not have been a single but an LP.)

The song was a scandal – and went to Number One. Gainsbourg and Birkin, who met when she was 22 and he was 41, had a raging love affair – and a daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who abetted her father’s provocations by duetting with him on ‘Lemon Incest’ and starring, occasionally naked, in his film ‘Charlotte for Ever’. But the hedonistic fug thickened and Birkin left him in 1980, already pregnant with film director Jacques Doillon’s child.

‘He acted out the country’s post-war vices,’ according to Marie-Dominique Lelièvre, author of ‘Gainsbourg Unfiltered’: ‘Alcoholism, nicotine, exhibitionism, incest and self-love.’ In other words, France herself had a sale guele – an ugly mug – and Gainsbourg, who found his reflection so unflattering he refused to have mirrors in the house, was the man to reflect it back to her.

In the 1980s, he slipped further into drunkenness and outrage, stumbling on to television sets while out of his mind, making a reggae version of the 'Marseillaise' that infuriated the right wing, and continuing to épater la bourgeoisie (outrage the middle classes) in fine Baudelairian tradition. Yet people loved him: Charlotte can’t take a cab without hearing a tale about her father’s kindness (he never learned to drive: ‘You cannot drink and drive,’ he said, ‘and I have chosen’), and it may be the oddest aspect of Gainsbourg’s character that beneath the épateur lurked a true bourgeois, who respected his parents, turned up on time for work and even voted conservative (when he voted).

Still, he also confessed to beating Birkin when drunk and told Whitney Houston, live on television, that he wanted to fuck her. None of which prevented a Diana-style meltdown when he died, with eulogies from Deneuve and Mitterand. Fans have since covered the walls of his house in graffiti – including some portraits by Sfar.

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Gainsbourg would surely want his life to be a movie: this was a man who halted his removal to hospital after his first heart attack until the paramedics fetched his Hermès blanket, because the standard one would look terrible in paparazzi shots. And Sfar’s movie is stylish, good-looking and irreverent, so its subject may have approved, even if he did have a typically complicated relationship to good looks. ‘I prefer ugliness to beauty, because ugliness endures,’ announced this incorrigible chaser of pretty girls. Ugliness is surely in the eye of the beholder, but it’s Serge’s combination of beauteous lyrics and sale guele that have rendered death mute.

Read our review of 'Gainsbourg'.

Author: Nina Caplan



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