The name Serge Gainsbourg brings to mind that peculiarly French brand of charming and sexually liberated arrogance. His music was playful and rude, his showmanship delightfully droll. Cigarette in hand, with croaking wisps of biting sarcasm, he encapsulated perfectly the laconic but immense passion of the French spirit.
But behind this illuminated public persona lay an introverted and stubborn individual. Gainbourg’s stooping physique may have seemed, to his fans, like the sulking, lackadaisical haunch of a genius; but in fact it was the gait of a stubborn man ploughing forward through his life without a thought for the friends, relatives, and lovers he was leaving in his wake.
Gainsbourg was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Paris in 1928. His father was a bar pianist and his mother a soprano, but Gainsbourg was determined to become a painter and, after being expelled from school, he enrolled at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. He played piano in the bars and clubs of Paris to pay for his life as a struggling artist; and in 1958, after meeting the novelist and satirical songwriter Boris Vian, finally realised he was much more talented as a songwriter than a painter.
He gained notoriety writing the song Sucettes à l’anis for teen idol France Gall, which included the lyrics “Annie likes lollipops/ Aniseed lollipops/ The aniseed taste flows down Annie’s throat/ She is in paradise.” He began a passionate and famous affair with Bridget Bardot before falling desperately in love with British actress Jane Birkin on the set of Slogan in 1968. Their relationship was immortalised by the song Je t’aime… moi non plus, which topped global charts despite being banned on radio and being singled out by the Vatican for its explicit lyrics and use of ‘orgasmic’ sound effects.
The brightness of this glamorous and blessed life was dimmed by Gainsbourg’s excessive lifestyle. After suffering a heart attack in 1973, he announced he would fix the problem by “upping his alcohol and tobacco consumption.” He was untouchable as an artist, but unreachable as a human being. He blamed his fits of rage and waywardness on his alter-ego “Gainsbarre”; and as Gainsbarre began to take over, Gainsbourg’s life began to fall apart. Birkin left him in 1980, stating that she “loved Gainsbourg, but was scared of Gainsbarre”. He died, a recluse, in 1991, and the public outpouring of grief affirmed his status as a French cultural icon.
Joann Sfar’s lugubrious and ethereal film is a delightful, thrilling tour through Gainsbourg’s life. Sfar takes every facet of Gainsbourg’s life – from his rebellious but starry-eyed youth to his stubborn and lonely autumn years – and mingles them with a touch of Russian fairytale to create an evocative and pleasantly sporadic homage. Given the period of Gainsbourg’s fame, it would have been easy to turn this film into a New Wave homage with grainy jump-cuts and lots of bed-haired couples arguing in kitchens while smoking filter-less cigarettes. But while Sfar has paid tribute to this evocative period in French culture, he has also piqued out less obvious elements of the Gainsbourg legend (namely his Russian ancestry and love of folk stories) to create a magical and floating story with giant puppets and surreal Parisian rooftop settings. He has also taken an unusual route with the soundtrack, choosing to rerecord all of Gainsbourg’s songs using contemporary bands and members of the cast.
Sfar has not attempted to entirely understand Gainsbourg or have the final say on his image; he has simply provided a fascinating and refreshing perspective on this overlooked and enigmatic icon.