”His profile, pitched in a precisely preconceived profile of a pose, the enormous ear, the prominent nose. His chin – smooth, not yet his signature unshaven chin— juts serenely, sagely, slightly upturned. The lips, sensual-soft, poised in mid-exhale. As if he were singing. Or smoking. No mistaking him, this finely-formed facsimile of one of France’s most famously infamous artists, one of the Fifth Republic’s most notorious agents provocateurs, the man who flipped la chanson française upside down and inside out and right side in and right side up all over again. He was Serge Gainsbourg.” ( Carolyn Heinze )
Gainsbourg left few indifferent. He was a cultural phenomenon who helped define both the flowering and the anti-flowering of a post war ”la belle epoque” in France. He was both cultural contradiction yet perfectly coherent in a long traceable line from Rousseau, Beaudelaire, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and other Bohemian figures of the modern age. He lived haunted by the shadow of the Dreyfus affair; ambivalent French attitude toward” the other” that incarnated a disquieting version of Christianity. Gainsbourg’s life, much like the Dreyfus affair was a kind of transcendent morality play staged by two sides of the same individual that were mutually exclusive and not easily reconcilable, like an arranged marriage of inconvenience in a perpetual state of divorce and infidelity. In Gainsbourg, one can scarcely fail to recognize in him an archetypical quality that makes Gainsbourg the brand, the caricature, one of French entertainment’s classic productions.
Apart from everything else, Gainsbourg’s story is a deeply moving human drama on an ageless theme of an innocence that was stereotypically falsely accused, but triumphantly vindicated, and reflected something profoundly human and compelling beyond the bile spewing forth from the rage and anger articulated within. His story is not only timeless but topical and his life illustrated basic modern social , cultural and political patterns and dilemmas. Gainsbourg seemed almost predestined for his role: discreetly Semitic features, ambition, talent, insecurity over his looks, all corresponded to the long-standing French stereotype of what an affluent, flashy, overly brainy, pushy young Jewish composer profiting from the ”cultural industries” should look like. Add to this his sensitivity, his inner uncertainty and superficial arrogance, and one might also say, his excessive innocence and a certain naivete in the face of the notoriety around him, heavily sensationalized but in reality, relatively tame and conventional.
They even adopt his ticks – the little wave of the chin, the jerky-quick nods of the head, the sneery-snarly-smarmy-cynique style of speech.“It’s not fair to reduce Serge’s notoriety to his long list of scandales,” they’ll conclude, lighting another Lucky or Marlboro or Winston or Camel while wishing, secretly, silently, that, if just for that soirée, beforehand, at the Tabac, they had substituted their usual brands for the famed, if foul-smelling, Gitanes. “He was respected for his amazing body of work. He was loved for advocating and protecting freedom of thought, freedom of spirit, the libre-esprit.” ( Carolyn Heinze )
Growing up in Vichy France, Gainsbourg’s life was almost traumatized with the fall of the French Republic in 1940 and the whole ignominious story of the Vichy regime called back attention to the Dreyfus Affair as the origin of a festering abscess that for years had been poisoning French democracy and exposed Gainsbourg to the precarity of life and the pursuit of consolation from the vast nothingness and inexplicable emptiness that the holocaust produced. As Hannah Arendt has said, the Dreyfus affair was ”a kind of dress rehearsal for the performance of our time” . Gainsbourg is the result after the encore when the curtain has fallen and the performer looks onto the audience and all the seats are filled with rotted corpses. The same unspeakable sadness and emptiness that pervaded the spirit of Marcel Marceau; a music of the spirit that gravity would push towards a song of life in a minor key.
Joann Sfar, about his movie, Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime He says he didn’t want to make a classical biopic, but a movie about beautiful music and women, and an ironic and provocative portrait of a French hero. Based on the remarkable life of iconic French singer, poet, writer and actor Serge Gainsbourg, the film is a surreal and evocative record of Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, when he was called Lucien Ginsberg, through to his transformation into the hard-living showman, enfant terrible and successful song-writer of the 50s and 60s, and a famous womaniser who bedded some of the era’s most beautiful women including Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), to his notoriety in the 70s and 80s. Its a film thats deeply flawed, but its qualities overwhelm the limitations; Sfar is uniquely capable of ”piercing the veil” to get a glimpse of the fantasy world, almost Chagall-esque into its more surreal and more fantastic conceptions that were behind great works such as ”Melody Nelson”; the compositional results that fused incompatible incongruities to co-exist within the same melody that seemed to reflect his yearnings and inner workings as ”contrapuntal” notes and arrangements.
Like Dreyfus, Gainsbourg wore that mantle of tragic topicality as only an outsider can; he was a nerve center that seemed to be intuitively locked into all the anti-democratic and anti-Semitic currents that festered like weeds in modern French society. He was at the crossroads of modern psychosis, as the attraction-repulsion principle in which delusive dreads of subversion could be manipulated into mass paranoia of these types of anti-heroes who by nature, almost have to reinforce their proper stereotypes to maintain the value of the caricature; a champion of the post-degenerative processes of early twentieth century bourgeois society; an icon of social order decaying from the top down and Gainsbourg as an agent of this notion of progressive subversion.
”Feed a Frenchman two glasses of cheap Bordeaux and it’s near-impossible for him to resist slipping into a little Serge. At parties, they huddle in little Frenchmen herds, not really Rugby-scrum-like, but more fashionista Frenchman-like, bunching up around the iPod or the laptop or the CD player or, if they’re super-ultra-hipster-chic, the record player, as Gainsbourg Big Bad Wolf’s his way through “Je t’aime moi non plus,” with Jane Birkin or Brigitte Bardot, one or the other, depending on how many versions of the song are on hand, uncontrollably gasping, panting, crying out, coming, climaxing, wheezing in the background. With Serge on the sono, these Frenchmen begin lighting their cigarettes differently, with a flourish, a figure-eight, a Fosse-esque flick. Those Frenchman lucky enough to have landed an English girlfriend — or hell, any girl from the U.K., or any girl from any of the former U.K. colonies, or any girl who can at any time at all accurately imitate an English accent, or, hell, any girl at all, at any time, no matter what language she speaks, that wears micro-nano-mini mod dresses over lustrous-lush-long-lisse legs — at some point, sometime, in some way, somehow imagines himself, considers himself, to be Serge. You know, in the context of Jane.”
“The first time I met him I thought he was horrible,” confessed a wide-eyed British Jane Birkin in wide-eyed British French in a television interview, back in the day, back when Serge was still alive, back when she was his wife, the love of his life. “But what I had originally taken for aggression was actually enormous shyness.”
But, to be coherent, Gainsbourg had heroic qualities as he assumed a role as the antithesis of the new human type that seemed to be in full bloom in his time: the depersonalized technocrat; emotionally frozen who at their extreme are like the Nazi generals of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, who from Verdun to Vietnam to Iraq have left such ruthless marks on modern history.The kinds of individuals who lack any code of honor and whose only ideal is efficiency. Gainsbourg was against this spirit of meaningless human values who have one goal: power; for themselves or for the organizational machinery with which they identify.
Gainsbourg’s life story is a natural fit for the movies because he redefined himself every decade, from the clean-cut but gangly chanson française jazz singer of the 1950s to the envelope-pushing, rock-’n'-roll ladies’ man of the late ’60s and then the washed-up, alcoholic reggae and synth-pop performer of the ’80s. Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 62. The film’s director, comic-book artist and writer Joann Sfar, told the French magazine Telerama that it was Gainsbourg’s multiple personalities that drew him to the project. “Gainsbourg wasn’t just a singer but a strong archetype across time like Don Juan … he’s almost an imaginary character,” he said. ( Grant Rosenberg )