Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime

John Lawson 9 February 2010

John Lawson explores the myth of the legendary French singer, as a new biopic is released

Serge Gainsbourg was a man of many contradictions. For one, he devoted most of his artistic career to the perfection of what he considered ‘a minor art,’ the chanson. His musical style ranged from intimate jazz all the way to self-consciously trashy 80s disco. This man who loved to shock the public with lecherous, drunken excesses, was nevertheless very well read, very charming, and also surprisingly insecure.

Gainsbourg famously loved women, and yet many of his songs are tinged with bitterness and misogyny. Given tremendous gifts, fame and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful women, he seemed to embrace the myth he had created too fully, and eventually drank his way into a solitary oblivion.

Gainsbourg (Vie Heroique), a new film directed by Joann Sfar, explores some of the legendary periods of Gainsbourg’s life and work. Does this lovingly realised piece of Gainsbourg-history allow us to understand the elusive French icon?

Why does Sfar feel that the French singer’s life is worth two hours of our time? While Gainsbourg has a cult following, he also has his fair share of detractors, who see him as little more than a sleazy succes de scandale, an embarrassing would-be Casanova.

In Britain, Gainsbourg’s reputation rests on Je t’aime…moi non plus, a song where it’s certainly not necessary to understand French to know what he and Jane Birkin are singing about. We can’t be accused of prudishness – the song reached No. 1 – but an unwillingness to treat sex as more than a matter for amusement has characterised the British response to the singer. The language barrier never helped. All the same, even those who can comprehend Gainsbourg’s slurred mutterings find it hard to listen to the later songs, like Lemon Incest, or Love on the Beat, without disgust.

To understand Gainsbourg’s appeal, we have to take a step back and look at the art of chanson. An indifferent translation as ‘song’ does not capture its brilliance. Chanson is a combination of writing and performance, resulting in the creation of a believable stage character. Chanson artists ‘tell a story’ with their songs, and to do this they require strong, complex lyrics which evoke the character they play on stage. The strength of the performance suspends your disbelief and forces you to listen, through the sheer force of an often flawed persona.

Chanson offers a theatricality similar to opera, but for the ordinary man and woman, and delivered in any style. Besides Gainsbourg, there was Frehel, Jacques Brel, Juliette Greco, and Edith Piaf. You don’t need to have seen La Vie en Rose in order to feel the power of defiance against overwhelming sorrow when Piaf sings Je ne regrette rien. It is clear in every syllable.

Gainsbourg’s genius was to modernise the art form, adding the guitars, drums and grinding bass of rock ‘n’ roll, while simultaneously expanding its range, with songs on sex, jealousy, ennui, perversion, madness and Nazism. All this was delivered in a lyrical style that recalled the poetry of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and applied their rich symbolism to modern life. Gainsbourg was capable of moments of tenderness, nostalgia and regret, as in La Javanaise, but also of raw lust or sadism, as in Lola Rastauquouere and Love on the Beat.

The persona Gainsbourg creates often objectifies women, including underage girls, but to worry about the specifics of his vision is to miss the point. Something greater emerges out of these flaws and contradictions, a believable figure capable of attracting our attention, our sympathy, or our disgust. It’s a very different figure from Piaf, but the energy behind it is the same. The scandal that accompanied Gainsbourg’s songs merely provided proof of his artistic success.

These are all reasons why Gainsbourg’s life provides excellent material for a film, and why such a project presents enormous difficulties. Gainsbourg (Vie Heroïque) is an enjoyable picture, but it fails to unravel Gainsbourg’s tangled web of life and art. Like Bob Dylan, Gainsbourg’s closest parallel, Gainsbourg loved to play with his interviewers. What emerges is less the complete story of one man and more a series of increasingly debauched characters, linked only by songs and the succession of women.

Admittedly, the director does acknowledge this difficulty in the closing credits : “I love Gainsbourg too much to look for the truth…what interested me were his lies.” Somehow this feels like an insufficient excuse, given that the conventional episodic structure of the film fails to devote sufficient time to any of these ‘lies’ and gives the impression of an indulgent, Scorsese-style tale of success and decadence.

Gainsbourg is a supremely indulgent figure, but with so little depth given to the characters that surround him (even his greatest love Jane Birkin), he ends up being the wrong sort of caricature. Sfar’s solution to the complexities of Gainsbourg’s character is to create an animated embodiment of his psyche, a grotesquely exaggerated alter-ego who follows him around Paris. Given the bizarre nature of Gainsbourg’s imagination, the device is more appropriate than you might think – but it’s no replacement for focused character study.

There are, however, some great performances which make the film consistently enjoyable. Eric Elmosino is spectacular as Gainsbourg, and gives a real sense of progression from shy, introspective youth to dissipated, cynical middle age. Lucy Gordon plays Jane Birkin with endearing innocence, and Laetitia Casta is believably sexy as Brigitte Bardot.

The script includes some great lines, “If your parents like what you do, it means you’re a failure…” and Gainsbourg’s music is well integrated into the film, both as soundtrack and as recreated performance. Gainsbourg (Vie Heroique) suffers, not from a lack of quality, but from spreading it too thinly.

As for Gainsbourg himself, his desires, contrasts and morbid obsessions remain almost as opposing as ever. Perhaps that’s because we’re looking at Gainsbourg the wrong way. We’re used to seeing a life as a narrative leading towards a climax, and cinema has difficulty getting away from that.

Gainsbourg’s life was rather different, marked by a determined commitment to failure, as evidenced in his statement: “I have succeeded at everything except my life.” As a man, his story verges on being unintelligible, because it runs contrary to the lines we are accustomed to. This inversion is what makes his art so original, and so compelling. Joann Sfar’s film hints at these qualities, but leaves us wanting more.

John Lawson