Americans in high school or college in the 1970s might remember a steamy duet in French sung to a sensual rock beat by a man and a woman who sound as though they are having sex.
Je t’aime… moi non plus [I love you… me neither] (1969) is the song. Serge Gainsbourg, its writer and composer, and his partner, the English actress Jane Birkin, are the performers.
‘You know the song,’ this film’s trailer says. ‘But do you know the man?’
It’s a fair question. The story works along the lines of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There (2007), in that rather than recount the subject’s life, it tries to convey a sense of the man who lived it through stories about him.
Not well known in the United States, Gainsbourg wrote more than 500 songs and released two dozen albums between 1958 and 1988. He wrote and directed films. He was a celebrity whose serial scandales and love affairs, most notably with Brigitte Bardot, provided regular fodder for the French tabloids.
Gainsbourg, ‘classically trained’ as they say, started out as a pianist working in a style the French call ‘chanson’, which roughly corresponds to what Americans call ‘lounge music’. His early influences were performers such as Fréhel (grittier and less mainstream than Edith Piaf) and Boris Vian. Like Paul Simon, he moved on to and had great success with a variety of other styles.
He relished provocation. It is little surprising that Gainsbourg’s sexually provocative work was not better known in Nixon-era America—or since. (Lord knows, the Nixon Administration had trouble enough on its hands with that drug-using musical English peacenik and his Japanese performance artist wife.)
In the mid-1960s, Gainsbourg wrote several songs for France Gall, a daddy-managed French teen pop idol. One of these songs, Les Sucettes (Lollipops) created a huge—and financially successful—furore because just beneath the song’s bubblegum surface lay a paean to young girls performing oral sex on older men.
In the late 1970s, he did Aux armes et cetera, a reggae version of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, recorded in Jamaica, which infuriated French right wing nationalists. (He also managed to piss off Bob Marley, for other reasons.)
This is Gainsbourg in a nutshell. These provocations are among many that get play in the movie, but the uproar over La Marseillaise frames Sfar’s telling of the story.
For Serge Gainsbourg begins Sfar’s account as the precocious 12-year-old Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein), the son of immigrant Russian Jewish parents Joseph and Olga Ginsburg (Razvan Vasilescu and Dinara Droukarova). The family lives in Paris under Nazi occupation. We see Lucien watch drunken French soldiers weave down the street in loose formation, belting out the French national anthem beneath the gaze of a grotesque egg-headed figure on a poster, ‘Le Juif et la France.’
The Ginsburg family hid Lucien in a rural school and all managed to avoid deportation and survive the war in the French countryside.
The Jewish Humpty-Dumpty from the poster follows the boy until Ginsburg’s daimon reveals itself after the war to the young man (Eric Elmosnino) as ‘La Gueule’ [The Mug] (Doug Jones, with Elmosnino’s voice), an elegant, ironical figure with a great beak of a nose and elephant ears.
[‘Mug’ seems a tame stand-in for ‘gueule’. In French, ‘gueule,’ literally an animal’s mouth or beast’s maw, is a long-time ironical/pejorative slang expression for the human face more along the lines ‘ugly mug’ or the 1940s ‘kisser’ or ‘puss’ (e.g., sourpuss), though there really isn’t a better English equivalent.]
Guided by La Gueule, Ginsburg, until then an unsuccessful painter and musical dabbler, takes up performing in earnest and soon the stage name Serge Gainsbourg.
In this story, the protagonist’s Jewish identity is a key to his personality. The film’s adult Ginsburg, like the actual Gainsbourg, is far from handsome. The film shows him taking the ‘ugly Jew’ epithet to heart. In a sense, La Gueule is as much the genius of all the ugly and negative things Ginsburg felt that the world had thrust on him, honed to fine edge and turned right back at it.
At the same time, Ginsburg is grounded comfortably in the culture of his parents. Their lifelong love and support gives him the firm footing, confidence and freedom to become the risk-taking, provocative, though ultimately self-destructive Serge Gainsbourg.
Sfar clearly is a fan of his subject, whom he sees as a ‘transcendent’ figure. His confessed preference for Gainsbourg’s ‘lies’ to his ‘truths’ in a sententious postscript at the film’s end reflects a puppy enthusiasm for his subject.
On the other hand, Sfar’s animated opening credits (even the fish smoke—Gitanes—as do nearly all the actors all the way through the story) and lively visual imagination make this picture fun to watch.
But what brings the work off is the charisma that Elmosnino lends to these flights of fancy (Klein as the young Ginsburg also is quite good). We first see this in a scene in which the adult Ginsburg brings a guitar to a music room of Holocaust orphans.
A school official asks the hip young Jewish nightclub performer in a gabardine suit if he knows ‘Yiddish folklore’ songs, and warns him not to do anything to disturb the children. La Gueule propels Ginsburg into the classroom where he starts to strum a simple tune, to which one by one they all respond.
The scene, which feels fresh, spontaneous and genuine, establishes who this character is—or, at least, the Chagallesque strummer whom the writer-director wants us to know.
His legendary 30-year career and loves take off once La Gueule persuades him to cut out the ‘nonsense’—an ordinary life—and to get down to the serious work of writing songs.
Gainsbourg appears not to have been particularly pleasant to the lovely array of women in his life, but the delicious cast has fun vamping up the four goddesses: Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) and Bambou [Caroline von Paulus] (Mylène Jampanoï). The film director Claude Chabrol cameos as Gainsbourg’s cigar-chomping 1960s French music producer.
In the end though, Elmosnino answers the trailer’s question. He convinces us that this odd, funny-looking, possessed man really created and composed this legendary life.
|Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin, Eric Elmosnino as Serge Gainsbourg|