Serge Gainsbourg Reconsidered

Courtesy Music Box Films

Why we should still care about Serge Gainsbourg, his music and the new French movie about his life and times.

Serge Gainsbourg was a bad-looking guy, unconventional, cheeky, provocative and somewhat despairing. But Brigitte Bardot, the world sex symbol of the 1960s (as Marilyn Monroe was in the ’50s) succumbed to his charm; Jane Birkin, the lovable young Chelsea girl just discovered in Blow-up, fell for him; the most beautiful French actresses, from Catherine Deneuve to Vanessa Paradis, performed his songs. Singing Gainsbourg was a step, a goal, a gift. Gainsbourg was a Pygmalion. He revealed voices, created styles and moved souls. Listen to “Je t’aime…moi non plus” and you will feel different afterward, certainly more sensitive, maybe in love with love, nostalgic, freed from too much reality. Gainsbourg used to say “I know my limits, it is the reason I go over them.” And he did, in his life as well as in his creations. This unclassifiable artist left not only some of the most beautiful songs of the French repertoire but also films, essays and poetry. In France, he is a legend and continues to influence. After Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, his house, in the heart of St.-Germain-des-Prés, became a kind of pilgrimage for fans who still tag their names or dedicate a quote to him. But Gainsbourg himself regarded life, if not lightly, then with a sly, witty indifference. “Life is nothing,” he once said, “but a snap between the fingers of a rock star.” That is to say, it’s brief, brilliant and on the beat.

Serge Gainsbourg Close-Up

Twenty years buried at his family’s plot in Paris’s Montparnasse hasn’t made Gainsbourg, France’s most well-known, loved and hated pop star, any less well known, loved or hated. As the subject of an impressionist biopic called Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), out in the States this month, Gainsbourg continues to incite and inspire. “The life of Serge Gainsbourg is what is left of a European hero,” explains Joann Sfar, the film’s director. Channeled by French actor Eric Elmosnino, who won Best Actor at both the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2010 and the César Awards in 2011, Gainsbourg is played true to life: equal parts fantastical, lewd, suave and seductive, qualities coalesced around a wicked wit, a delight in provocation and a raw-nerve vulnerability.

“Gainsbourg was,” says Sfar, “a mix of Dean Martin and Johnny Rotten.” His voice—nonchalant, pure, though sandpapered by hundreds of Gitanes—embodied ’60s sex appeal; his lyrics, witty and direct, made that appeal more explicit. He once wrote a song about lollipops for the then 18-year-old France Gall (she didn’t understand the double entendre) and recorded—twice, with two women—his masterpiece, “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” a song so sexual, it was banned from radio.

More than Rotten or Martin, Gainsbourg was restless Zelig. From an outcast Parisian Jew during World War II, obsessed with what he called his “ugly face,” to his love affairs with Brigitte Bardot (brief, heartbreaking) and Jane Birkin (longer, heartbreaking), to his unlikely late-era transformation into a reggae star, Gainsbourg constantly reinvented himself. “He wanted to be loved,” says Sfar, “and if he couldn’t be loved, he wanted to be seen.” —Joshua David Stein

Essential Listening: Serge Gainsbourg

Understanding French is helpful but not necessary for appreciating Gainsbourg. The singer delighted in wordplay, both in French and English. But even more than that, he loved double entendres and often single entendres, always delivered with poetry and a smooth croon.

“Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” (1959): Gainsbourg’s macabre but catchy hit tells the story of a subway ticket taker who spends all day punching small holes in Métro tickets before committing suicide from despair.

“I live at the heart of the planet/I’ve in my head a carnival of confetti/I bring it right up to my bed/And under my ceramic sky/I see only the transfers.”

“Les Sucettes” (1966): In 1965 Gainsbourg wrote a Eurovision-winning song for the teenage pop naïf France Gall; after she understood the real meaning of the 1966 duet, the two never worked together again.

“Give her kisses/An aniseed taste/While the cream sugar/Flavored with anise/Sinks in Annie’s throat/She’s in heaven.”

“Je t’ non plus” (1968–69): First recorded with Brigitte Bardot, who refused to allow the release at the bequest of her husband, Gainsbourg re-recorded what he called his first love song with Jane Birkin. The forward lyrics—coupled with Birkin’s orgasmic moans—caused the single to be banned from radio play before 11 p.m. in France. It reached no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart and no. 69 on America’s Hot 100.

“I love you/Me neither.
Yes I love you/Me neither
Oh my love/You are a wave,
I’m the naked island/You come, you come, you came between my loins.”

“Histoire de Melody Nelson” (1971): Considered Gainsbourg’s pièce de résistance, this formally ambitious concept album tells the story of a wealthy older man who runs his Rolls-Royce into the bicycle of a 15-year-old Melody Nelson, played by the young Jane Birkin.

“Aux armes et caetera” (1979): Recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, this album proved Gainsbourg’s restless genre-switching (this time, into reggae) and penchant for provocation. Upon its release, he received death threats from far-right militants furious at his reggae version of “La Marseillaise.” Gainsbourg later bought the original text for $35,450.

Serge Gainsbourg’s Muses and Music

1928: Lucien Ginsburg is born to Russian émigré musicians in Paris.

1946: After a promising start as an artist, he renounces painting and adopts a stage name, Serge Gainsbourg.

1958: Gainsbourg’s first album,
Du chant à la une, comes out with his first commercial hit, “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas.”

1967: During a brief but passionate love affair with the married actress Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg writes “Comic Strip” and “Bonnie & Clyde.” Bardot eventually returns to her millionaire husband, Gunter Sachs.

1968: Gainsbourg falls in love with the 22-year-old English actress Jane Birkin. The two record the song “Je t’aime…moi non plus.” The relationship lasts 13 years and produces a daughter, Charlotte.

1984: Another scandal erupts when Gainsbourg records “Lemon Incest” with the 13-year-old Charlotte.

1991: Gainsbourg dies at age 62 from a heart attack at his home in Paris: 5 Bis Rue de Verneuil. François Mitterrand calls him “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”