I’ll never forget the moment I first experienced the pop rapture of Serge Gainsbourg. It was sometime in the mid-’90s (I tend to catch up to stuff rather late — I didn’t hear the Velvet Under- ground’s first album until 1992), and I was in a noisy drinking establishment in my West Village neighborhood called Bar d’O, a name that Gainsbourg — who had a famous fling with Brigitte Bardot — would surely have appreciated. I was on my second martini, and the place was so loud that I couldn’t hear the music all that well. So when a song called “Je t’aime… moi non plus” came on the sound system, I barely even registered the thing that had originally made the song famous: the sound of Jane Birkin and Gainsbourg (pictured above) breathing heavily and whispering soft-core nothings. As I later learned, “Je t’aime” caused quite a scandal when it was first released in 1969. In hindsight, though, the scandal was very much of its moment, very Claude Lelouch-meets-I Am Curious (Yellow), very ooh la la. Birkin and Gainsbourg’s exhibitionistic bedroom talk-singing was at once daring and touching, yet it’s also the most dated aspect of “Je t’aime.”
But the music — oh my God! In its yearning, languid way, it was one of the most gorgeous things I’d ever heard. Sitting there in what I liked to think of as a thoughtful martini haze (something that Gainsbourg would also have appreciated), I felt myself swept up into a sound that was like a confectioner’s stairway to heaven. The gentle, insistent snap of the guitar, the drums that were like the Beatles on Quaaludes (complete with cymbals that shone like an aural nimbus), that winding, melodious, late-’60s organ that made the song sound like “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” only sadder and happier at the same time: It was four minutes of pure pop transcendence. I asked the bartender what the song was, and he said, “It’s by Serge Gainsbourg,” which made me think, Huh? Some French guy? How come I never heard of him?
Just in case you’ve never heard it, here’s “Je t’aime,” accompanied by home-movie footage of Gainsbourg and Birkin, the quintessential beauty-and-the-beast lovebirds of the late ’60s:
Watching that footage, you can see something that became very defining, indeed almost mythological, about Serge Gainsbourg, something that stands out even more in our own era of packaged pretty boys with their situational abs: Gainsbourg was not, by any stretch, a handsome man (a lot of people, including him, thought that he was ugly), yet because of that very fact, he came to symbolize a kind of bohemian-rumpled, arty-derelict, Swinging Paris allure that spoke — and still does — to the sexiness of inner qualities. Fifteen years before Don Johnson, Gainsbourg may have been the first celebrity to make not shaving seem cool, but you’d better believe that he didn’t nab Bardot or Jane Birkin with that mug. He was, you could argue, a bit of a troll, but a troll with the love song of a tinkly-sublime pop poet. For a while, he made slovenly hedonism glamorous in a Gallic Mad Men-meets-the-counterculture way, drinking wine into the night, always clutching one of his unfiltered Gitane cigarettes, his serpentine eyes hooded yet hungry, his talent fueled by pleasure, even decadence, that decadence fueled even further by his talent.
The best reason to see Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, the winsomely audacious new biopic about Serge Gainsbourg, is the actor who plays him, Erik Elmosnino (pictured, left). He looks astonishingly like him, but more than that, he puts on and wears the Gainsbourg mystique like a perfectly tailored natty-ratty suit. When Gainsbourg was a young man, coming up as a nightclub pianist and cabaret composer-singer in the late ’50s, he looked much more awkward than he did later on — his jug ears and beetle brows gave him the appearance of a gravely serious elf with a touch of Nosferatu — and Elmosnino catches that tormented, do I not bleed? self-consciousness, which is one of the big themes of the movie.
Born in 1928, Gainsbourg was Jewish (his real name was Lucien Ginsberg), and in a France laced with anti-Semitism, he was forced to wear a yellow star during World War II, when he was a teenager already hooked on art and women. The movie’s writer-director, Joann Sfar, is an award-winning creator of French graphic novels and children’s books, and his most delectable conceit is to have Serge followed around by a huge, looming puppet-like alter ego who steps off an anti-Semitic poster and then morphs into the figure of Gainsbourg’s “Mug,” a Spitting Image-like parody of the composer’s already overripe features. The idea, and it’s a good one, is that Gainsbourg’s sense of identity — as a Jew coming of age in the Nazi era, and as a fellow so ungainly-looking that he’s all but doomed to be an outsider — took on a life of its own, quite apart from who he was inside. In the movie, he has to make friends with that goggle-eyed, hook-nosed puppet in order to defeat him. The only way that he can win the war with his “Mug” is to accept who he is and what he looks like…and to not accept any limitations it places on him.
I enjoyed the early scenes of Gainsbourg, when he’s a struggling painter who tickles the ivories just to make money (he takes music far less seriously than art). Then, almost out of boredom, he starts to compose his own ditties. His role model is the legendary Charles Aznavour, but he takes Aznavour’s musical impishness and adds something far more modern: a dash of lyrical and melodic danger. When Serge and a friend make up a song like “Alcohol” right on the spot, or when he stands up in a club to sing the fantastically syncopated “Elaeudania téïtéïa,” you can feel the movie channeling Gainsbourg’s burgeoning popster’s zest. Here, by the way, is the real Serge, in 1964, lip-synching to “Elaeudania téïtéïa” (he may have been the original pioneer of music video, well before the Beatles). The clip itself is a bit out of synch, almost as if the song’s funky rhythms had thrown it off course:
But just when Gainsbourg, with its up-from-the-comics zaniness, should be bursting into a visionary pop musical, something jarring happens. The movie turns choppy. And episodic. And conventional. All in the surface-skimming, this-happened-and-then-this-happened mode of a mediocre TV movie. I first realized that the film was going off course in the scenes of Serge’s dalliance with Brigitte Bardot. Laetitia Casta, the actress who plays her, does a creditable job (though how can anyone really duplicate Bardot’s baby-lioness allure?), but by jumping right into the middle of their relationship, the filmmaker never really makes sense of it. What’s more, he misses the perfect opportunity to show us how Gainsbourg actually operated as a seducer.
Serge’s relationship with Jane Birkin, that superstar gamine of a London fashion model, is a bit more fleshed out, though not by much. Lucy Gordon is perfectly cast, but this relationship, too, is one headline moment after another. You’d never guess that Gainsbourg made albums with both of these women (the Bardot album is pretty bad; the Birkin one is occasionally inspired — even though Birkin can’t sing to save her life), and the movie is so devoted to his mystique that it never probes deep enough beneath it to show you what they saw in him.
Then again, I’d more than forgive the dramatic shortcomings of Gainsbourg if the movie could only have been a rhapsodic showcase for Serge Gainsbourg’s music. But that’s where it needed to be directed by a true outlaw aesthete, a 21st-century Ken Russell, someone who went over-the-top not just in cutely stylized Freudian vignettes but as a way of tapping into the ecstasy of his subject. Joann Sfar, for all his “audacious” conceits, keeps his feet stolidly on the ground. He uses Gainsbourg’s songs not as the main event but as wallpaper to illustrate a reductive narrative. Why not, after all, turn the movie into a delirious pop opera, with a sequence that does justice to the dark whirling-and-grinding rapture of “Bonnie and Clyde,” that channels the symphonic grandeur of “Initials, B.B.,” that turns “Je t’aime” into a movie moment that lifts your heart, and breaks it, as much as the song does?
Come to think of it, maybe it’s oddly fitting that Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life taps right into the cult of Serge Gainsbourg — into the obsession that’s so easy to develop for this macho-artiste pop-cabaret master of the three-minute jukebox epiphany — without, in the end, doing him justice. The beauty of Serge Gainsbourg’s music is that it doesn’t need a movie. It already is one.
So who out there besides me is a cultist for Serge? If so, what’s your favorite Gainsbourg song? And do you plan on seeing Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman