Serge Gainsbourg at the Movies
You wouldn't know it from Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, but cinema played a crucial part in French musician Serge Gainsbourg's life and career. Aside from some passing references to his first encounter with girlfriend/muse Jane Birkin on the set of 1969's Slogan (a groovy slice of middle-aged male insecurity), there are no mentions of Gainsbourg's three packed decades as hardworking soundtrack composer, character actor and — on four gloriously eccentric occasions — writer-director.
In France, he's revered as a national institution with the untranslatable charisma of a Cole Porter–Dylan-Bukowski hybrid. Elsewhere, Gainsbourg is mostly known by hipsters as the suave composer of the enormously influential 1971 Histoire de Melody Nelson song cycle (recently feted by Beck and heavyweight friends at the Hollywood Bowl), and by his one novelty hit, the ode to heavy-breathing "Je t'aime ... moi non plus," released in 1969.
Both works represent a brief period when he was fascinated by a peculiar combination of symphonic arrangements, rock elements and pseudo-African percussion. But Gainsbourg's musical career spanned from his early stints as a cabaret piano player in 1958 to his death in 1991, and his film career was almost as long-lived.
In the late '50s Gainsbourg was recognized musically as a gifted, witty example of the Left Bank jazzy chanson tradition. He was also recruited by casting directors for his distinctive looks: One early live reviewers wrote that he had "the face of a killer."
Initially cast as "a bar piano player" in movies for which he also supplied the soundtrack and a catchy theme song (1963's Strip-Tease, starring a pre–Velvet Underground Nico), Gainsbourg also found work as a villain in low-budget, sword-and-sandal movies. "They always gave me the bad-guy roles because of my ugly face," he told a journalist years later of his appearances in movies such as The Revolt of the Slaves (1960), in which he plays a sadistic Roman who tortures and kills St. Sebastian before being devoured by the saint's dogs.
Gainsbourg had his champions among critics and hip Left Bank singers, but his records didn't sell very well in the early '60s (he lost a lot of commercial ground to populist crazes like the Twist and the yé-yé teenybopper pinups), and he had to supplement his income with soundtrack work for film and TV. The period coincided with the rise of the French Nouvelle Vague, and though Gainsbourg generally worked with much less celebrated directors in sexy comedies, spy movies and spoofs, he did write the theme song for the 1964 omnibus Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (The Best Swindles in the World), which included episodes by Godard, Chabrol and Polanski.
One of the world's greatest melodists, Gainsbourg often reworked instrumental tunes from his soundtracks into sophisticated songs for his EPs and LPs. While legend has it he wrote "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" in one night in 1967 as his personal tribute to his stormy affair with original co-vocalist Brigitte Bardot, the melody had been composed the previous year as dance mood music for an obscure film, Les Coeurs Verts (The Green Hearts).
As an art student in the '50s, Gainsbourg had worshipped Francis Bacon, but by 1965 he had decided it was time to devote himself to more profitable models, like Dalí and Warhol. He embraced faddish pop culture in order to corrupt it from within, preferably aided and abetted by greedy managers and clueless nymphettes.
His association with TV and advertising people resulted in projects like Anna, a pop art fantasy for the small screen, starring Godard's estranged wife and muse, Anna Karina, and Le Bardot Show, a series of trippy musical vignettes he devised for France's biggest star.
The period between 1966 and 1971 is the golden age of Gainsbourg's soundtrack work, and the test run for his iconic Melody Nelson sound. His original scores for Anna, L'Horizon, Manon 70, Le Pacha (with much-sampled, stone-cold Gainsbourg classic "Requiem pour un con"), Slogan, La Horse and Cannabis are all masterpieces of the period, enhancing often mediocre movies and easily standing their ground among contemporary works by soundtrack giants Morricone, Nino Rota or Michel Legrand.
Birkin's acting career took off in the early 1970s. Hanging around film sets while jealously chaperoning his stunning lover (and often playing supporting parts in her movies), Gainsbourg began developing an idea for a film of his own. He spent 1974-75 carefully preparing drawings and diagrams for his directorial debut. Financing was not an issue, as long as he was willing to cast Birkin as the female lead and title the movie Je t'aime moi non plus. This gave Gainsbourg carte blanche to create a difficult, controversial film, starring Warhol's original hustler, Joe Dalessandro, in a plot described by biographer Sylvie Simmons as "a murderous love triangle between two gay truck drivers and an androgynous young woman."
It was lambasted; one critic panned it as "a piece of dung," riffing on the steaming heaps that the truck drivers transport in the film. The disillusioned composer stuck to writing scores for a while, and began a lucrative side business hiring himself and Birkin out for TV commercials, which Gainsbourg conceptualized and directed.
His interest in filmmaking was revived in the early '80s. In 1983, he traveled to Africa to direct the rarely seen film Equateur, based on a story by French noir maestro Georges Simenon. The production was plagued by problems and an ill Gainsbourg returned to France.
In 1986, taking advantage of a new scandal he had caused by dueting with his young daughter Charlotte on a track called "Lemon Incest," he cast her as the lead in Charlotte Forever, a strangely autobiographical fiction.
He spent the last productive years of his life laboring on another weird personal project, a film called Stan the Flasher, about a middle-aged schoolteacher who's having problems at home and becomes obsessed with exposing himself to one of his students. The film — with a script referencing Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Daniel Defoe — premiered in 1990 to befuddled reactions; it's also rarely screened.
When he died, in 1991, alone in his bohemian "personal museum," cared for by a personal valet, Gainsbourg had been working on an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, in which Friday would be a kindly old black man who has to teach a deranged Crusoe (played by Christopher Lambert, of Highlander fame) about manners and sophistication.
It would have been a fitting cap to Gainsbourg's filmography, a career with too many strange footnotes for simple summarization. The strangest? According to his IMDB entry, Gainsbourg is featured in Jerry Lewis' infamous 1972 Holocaust dramedy, The Day the Clown Cried — a credit that can't be corroborated, as the film remains unfinished and unseen.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.
More Film News
- I Never Liked the National Lampoon's Vacation Series, and This New Version Is...
- Five Reasons to Enter the Silly, Sad World of Netflix's BoJack Horseman
- You Will Learn Exactly Three New Things From the Chris Farley Documentary
- Jason Segel Had His Book Club Read Infinite Jest Without Telling Them He Was...