Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

Having yesterday afternoon completely off, I was put in the unique-to-me situation of going to an actual movie theater by myself, a feat I don't think I've undertaken since early college (when Cronenberg sent me out solo to the theater to see History of Violence). With the rapid decline of movie house manners, I'm loath to go spend seven to nine dollars of my hard earned, earmarked to be spent at thrift stores money on tolerating what usually turns out to be the REAL spectacle when you enter a theater. My list of grievances in recent memory include:
  • Listening to old people discuss which member of the cast is which at a voice just below a yell ("Is that Gypsy[Rose Lee, when it was obviously a much younger actress that looked nothing like her]?" "No, I don't think that's her. Well, it could be! She's supposed to be in this movie!" "I think I'd know her if it was her." "Well, I said it could be her! I don't know!" ---> screening of Nicholas Ray's Wind Through the Everglades)
  • Listening to teenagers talk about, oh, whatever's going on in their lives, having nothing to do with the movie, at a voice just below a yell ("Well, what Tabitha said was she was gonna break up with him but then it turned out, it turned out she didn't even know they weren't together when he was supposed to have cheated on her and all, but what did Nick have to say about--" --->; screening of the first Paranormal Activity movie)
  • Listening to that one dude with some kind of respiratory illness that you'd think would preclude his leaving a medical facility, much less his house, much less to attend a public function, try, unsuccessfully, to dislodge whatever he's been trying to clear from his throat since BEFORE THE MOVIE BEGAN.
Again, being burned so many times at the altar of paid, in person movie going, I thought I would skip a solo viewing of Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque; however, halfway towards beating a path home after some junk purveying, a pang of sentimental loyalty towards arguably the most influential French musician/composer of the twentieth century made me curtail my homeward route and drop into the Belcourt for the last viewing that would fit into my work schedule.

Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris, in the year 1928, to Russian Jewish parents. After jettisoning a career as a painter, he took his wild facility with language and double entendres, added razor sharp musical sensibilities, and produced a string of verbally challenging, auditorily pleasing jazz-ish numbers, including "Le poinçonneur des lilas" (Roughly "The Subway Ticket Taker", about a Metro employee whose monotonous job punching tickets makes him want to punch his own ticket), "Un violon, un jambon", "Le javanaise", "La chanson de Prévert" (actually about the song "Autumn Leaves") and "L'eau a la bouche". He also penned several hits for girls of the yé-yé pop movement (think...a go-go-ish Motown with white French girls) including France Gall ("Poupée de cire, poupée de son", "Baby Pop", the relatively infamous "Les sucettes") and Françoise Hardy ("Comment te dire adieu"). After two marriages and notorious love affairs with the likes of Brigitte "Possibly the Sexiest Person I Can Think of Off the Top of My Head" Bardot and Juliette "Friends With Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau/Super Bohemian Sex Symbol" Gréco, he met Jane Birkin, with whom he would spend the next ten years of his life.

Jane Birkin was the daughter of Noel-Coward-intimate and well-known West End stage presence Judy Campbell and a WWII espionage agent. She had already married and divorced James Bond theme composer John Barry before leaving England to shoot a movie in France. Hopeless at the language (as she would notably remain for many years... imagine her French sounding as much influenced by her first language as Desi Arnaz's English on I Love Lucy, for a good point of reference), Serge Gainsbourg recalled their first meeting as seeing a gorgeous, boyish girl with the shortest skirt and the longest legs he'd ever seen, walking down a hotel staircase. Jane's hemlines and fashion choices did defy the limits of even late 60's sensibilities, but if I had pin thin gams and a face that could and should be able to get away with anything, I would take it to the edge, too.

In high school, another student in my French class did a (oddly passionless) report on the scandal that accompanied the release of the Jane/Serge collaboration "Je t'aime, moi non plus", and as soon as I got a look at the sixties' super couple, I fell all the way in love with their style, sense of naughty fun, and surtout, the music.

Melody Nelson
blew my little early college brain out of its case when I got to school and managed to find a torrent of it online (I mean, it... in some form...), and soon I was down at the Honors computer lab abusing my free printing privileges to crank out voluminous interviews and lyrics in the original French, to pore over and assimilate. Just as my deep love of Truffaut movies (to the point of committing the dialogue to cassette tape and listening to it over and over again), when combined with my rigorous high school class, made me a relatively decent French speaker, trying to decode and translate the ever colloquial and terribly fond of double meanings Gainsbourg made me a better French reader.

Something about the music and the intricate word play made my mind light up, and I was beginning to know something of the artist via concert footage and interviews on (kind of like a BBC archive, except French?) in these pre-Youtube days (hard to imagine, isn't it?). Talk about agent provacateur. Serge Gainsbourg's impish sense of thumbing his nose at society, whether it was making his intentions towards pre-Bobby Brown Whitney Houston known on national television, covering the beloved French national anthem"La Marseillaise" with a reggae band, giving press conferences from his hospital bed after a heart attack while drinking and smoking... even when his decadence seemed to be against his best interest, I loved his dedication towards pursuing it.

Where Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque is not, by any means, an amateurish film, I felt that it missed the boat in all major ways in terms of conveying that sense of anarchy and joy I loved so much about Serge Gainsbourg. Neither a straight-forward biopic nor a truly successful "jazz riff on the life of " style movie, Gainsbourg felt like a touring bus through some important moments in the life of its subject, while never making any kind of statement or even providing a coherent line between episodes in a vibrant and accomplished life. I was promised in the interviews that Joann Sfar, who comes from a background as a comic book artist, would give a more symbolic and interpretational reading of Gainsbourg's life, and I feel like that assurance was never fulfilled. Kept waiting; never came through.

There are moments of allegorical fantasy, as Gainsbourg's alter-ego "Dr. Flipus" follows him around in full-sized puppet form and pushes him towards pursuing his goals, or as a Nazi propaganda poster against Jews in France comes to life as a companion to ten year old Gainsbourg, following him down the streets of Paris as a constant reminder of his "otherness", but neither is used in a way that conveys deeper meaning. In a Gondry film, these fanciful, paper-mache type creatures might have served some purpose, but I felt like, in Sfar's film, they just didn't have much to do, except pop up and remind you that "you're not watching a straightforward documentary".

In trying to fit in every segment of his life, L-O-T-S got sacrificed in favor of pastiche, but I think nothing suffered so much at the movie's hands as the Birkin/Gainsbourg relationship, which had about as much screen time as the significant, but not nearly as enduring or important, dalliances with Bardot and Gréco. Lucy Gordon, who actually passed away before the film was released, is gorgeous, but doesn't really bring across the "dolly bird" look or style of Birkin, and the "deserves-its-own-movie" Birkin/Gainsbourg love affair takes up maybe twenty minutes of screen time. Do you see how slim and well dressed and glamorous they were? How happy them seem to look in every picture? None of that came through in the movie.

Another thing? The contextless-ness of the biographical information presented in the movie would be totally confusing if I already wasn't familiar with a lot of the Gainsbourg story. While everyone in France is more or less aware of who Gainsbourg was, what about the foreign audience? It would be kind of like if there was a movie about John Lennon, screening in a foreign culture who somehow has no prior knowledge of the Beatles, his solo career, Yoko Ono, etc-- and the narrative just assumed you knew the general facts about his life, and then presented them with that missing knowledge. Irksome.

You usually won't see me badmouth people, places, or things on this blog, it's just that I was morbidly disappointed in this movie, after a year and a half of waiting for a US/ Nashville release. I guess I was mainly hoping that the movie would catch the spirit of the man so that I could finally talk with other American, non-French speaking about HOW. GREAT. GAINSBOURG. IS. Overall, I feel like the snippets and fragments of music and life presented in the movie did in no way bring across the charming, contradictory, immensely talented subject, and that, again, really let me down.

But take a listen to a few of the tracks I linked to above, look at some of the great photos, and see if you can't fall a little bit in love with this couple the way I did. Movie or no movie, you know you want to!

Further Viewing:

Further Reading:

Guardian article
"The Secret World of Serge Gainsbourg", Vanity Fair, 2007
French blogger's take on "The Birkin Look", with great photos
Birkin vs. Bardot, Style watch (also French, but great photos for you non francophones)


  1. "Ah le grand Serge !!!!!" One of my favorite french singer… "Le jazz dans le ravin" and other cool jazz songs from gainsbourg are fabulous… first gainsbourg period far from the second period called "GAINSBAR"…

  2. @ French cancan: I agree! Love that man.



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