Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)Gainsbourg the singer-songwriter, or minstrel-poet. The wise-fool. The twin of Liliane. The serial monogamist. The man-boy. The boy-man.

Gainsbourg - as young boy

Gainsbourg The Heroic Life the 2010 French bio-pic by director Joann Sfar, his comic-strip creation made cinema-flesh. An unsentimental tale but no dry résumé either – the history of the spirit of Serge Gainsbourg, no less.

Gainsbourg starts with him as a pre-teen boy on a beach with a pre-teen girl innocently playing until he asks pre-Beatles ‘Can I hold your hand?’. To which his first jilted response

No, you’re too ugly!

After a few seconds pause he stands up and takes an illicit drag on his cigarette – prequel his life and cue the opening credits to the sound of his Vaise de Melody. He is in love with woman, the idea of woman, the ideal of woman, but also the skin-and-bones, blood, sweat and tears woman, but believes himself too ugly for them. In spite of this he is at ease in their company even though haunted hitherto of his physical appearance.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) - Cartoon SergeTo that end the film presents us an alter-ego of him – a grotesque yet also comical caricature of his body, particularly unflattering his face, even more so his nose and ears. His low esteem in this respect sharply contrasted by the women he courted and loved and sometime married – most notably Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and Juliette Gréco. He of course being loved not (only) for his looks but for his spirit, his huge easy talent  and his common humanity.

As his infatuated relationship with women started young so did his infatuation with art and music, his life-long love triangle.

The young Lucien (for Serge was an adopted stage name) Gainsbourg is played by Kacey Mottet Klein a memorable an acting performance as Eric Elmosnino who plays the adult Serge. Both captured not just the appearance of Gainsbourg but his very essence.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

First muse?…

And the film’s time-line is at least chronologically conventional starting with the young Lucien in 1940’s Paris under Nazi occupation. And he is Jewish (his parents Russian emigrants) but for him the most significant encounter with Germany is with its music, with Beethoven. He seated at the family upright piano, his father, his dissatisfied teacher, chastising his faltering youthful play, causing the young Lucien to exclaim that he hates the piano and is not interested in music – like Pablo Picasso saying he is not interested in art or Coco Chanel in fashion! Music is certainly interested in him and soon the mutual interest will be all-consuming.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Klimtesque drawings

Gainsbourg was not just a precocious musician but a painter, his favoured subjects were women, romance, sex, as it would be with his music too. His precocious gift making him an indispensable friend to his class-mates – a young purveyor of porn that he was. His male-teachers did not exactly disapprove of his work either!

Next we see the first appearance of the Eric Elmosnino adult-Gainsbourg – and painting still competing with women for his passions, music not yet fully established in his affections, now though no longer struggling on his family upright piano but comfortable on a bar-room grand-piano, if still providing that bar its background music.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)


Then comes a music lesson, this time no piano but an acoustic guitar. His teacher inciting the spirit of Django Reinhardt – that he did not know notes but could play and feel them by heart and by spirit.

His advice as music teacher was somewhat more philosophical as we see him with young French pop-star France Gall passing on to her the words of a former music-teacher of his.

If your parent’s like your work it’s shit!

There is of course a soundtrack to this film but it is the music as performed in the film itself – it is Eric Elmosnino singing La Javanaise with Greco for example not Serge. I think he would have approved.

The film briefly passes over an eternal dilemma of the artist – how to court popularity and pay the bills and keep integrity intact – in their words

to sell three copies for himself and his parents or write for Johnny Halliday

His encounter with fame was inevitably with infamy too.

I go and come

Between your loins

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

With Jane Birkin…Je t’aime…

This is ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ his 1969 hit with future English wife Jane Birkin. And we see them present the song to their manager and can see his response to it from his eyes alone. For most of us Brits this is how most of us know Gainsbourg. Despite a sometime censorious attitude toward pop music the song was not banned as much because we Brit’s do not do French (speak it that is), or indeed any foreign languages, we expect the world to all speak English like we do. And so Je t’aime despite its overt eroticism did not burn our British ears as we could only hear ‘I love you’ (the universal language of pre-orgasmic panting not-withstanding!) and enough of us liking it to send it all the way to the top of what would now be a Top 10 Download chart, and what was then number one spot in the hit-parade of forty.

The French manager understanding very well the full-meaning of its words responded

I’m willing to risk prison but not for one song

Afterwards Gainsbourg declares to Jane Birkin that he ‘wants to move on to more serious things’. Jane Birkin replies ‘like an album or that symphonic project of yours?’ He replies ‘No like marrying a British lady.’

It is still a love-triangle but woman is it seems the favoured of the three.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Gainsbourg and Birkin

This film is no prosaic biography as you could go to Wikipedia for nor is it a poem to him as with the book A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons rather it is his attitude and angst distilled in his art, in his music, in his love, in his life.

Towards the end of the film we see the death of his father. ‘My rendezvous is you’ he sings on the upright that Serge was first taught to play on before hunching forward over the keyboard. A poignant swan-song.

No hagiography is this film of Sfar’s – Gainsbourg when not being revered was being reviled.

When he looks in the mirror Serge Gainsbourg must dream of a society with his face. When I see Serge Gainsbourg I become an ecologist fighting the pollution his person and work gives off.

So writes one newspaper critic regarding his public parody of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise!

His life ends in a drunken golden haze – yet most certainly Gainsbourg did not go quietly in to that dark night.

I look forward more films from its director Joann Sfar – a recent release ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ is based on a cat who having swallowed a parrot can now speak and wishes to convert to Judaism!

Serge Gainsbourg’s love life was well known (the good and the ill) but his art and his music were greatly overlooked.

Gainsbourg the film provides a poetic memorial of him toward making him, and his music in particular, better known.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)