Saturday, March 24, 2012


This feature-length documentary, directed by Pascal Forneri, was made for French television, yet it offers a far more comprehensive grasp of the life and career of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg than either his official video retrospective or the recent feature GAINSBOURG, A HEROIC LIFE.

The title translates as "Gainsbourg, the Man Who Loved Women," making reference to the 1977 Truffaut film, though it has evidently been shown at some English festivals as GAINSBOURG AND HIS GIRLS. Its focus is on the many women in Gainsbourg's private and professional lives (one often crossed over into the other). They are all interviewed for the project -- Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, his wives Jane Birkin and Bambou, his daughter Charlotte -- but their faces are not shown; we hear only their speaking voices, which allows us to remember them as they appear in a remarkable breadth and depth of reference material, ranging from newsreels to promotional videos to television appearances.

By the time Gainsbourg appeals to ex-wife Jane to record an album of songs about their separation "because we are mythic," we understand as well as she because we've been shown what they meant, not only to the cognoscenti absorbing their records in seclusion, but to the general French viewing public, some of whom we've also been shown approaching them in the street. We can also better appreciate the tears staining her face as she struggles to sing one, alone, on television, and what Gainsbourg feels as he watches her and refuses to discuss her ("We can't go there") in subsequent interviews. He similarly refuses to discuss Bardot, whom Hardy insightfully describes as one of his life's most vital relationships: short but essential to encouraging him as a man and artist. One of the film's most fascinating passages discusses Gainsbourg's original recording of "Je t'aime moi non plus" with Bardot, which was suppressed by the actress until 1986 out of respect to her then-present official relationship, and Gainsbourg's overcoming of his interior conflict of fidelity to the unfaithful Bardot to rerecord the song with Jane Birkin, who says she only recorded the song because she refused to consider another woman singing those words to the man she truly loved.

The film concludes that Gainsbourg did his best songwriting for women because there was a pronounced sensitivity in him that his own insecurities could not broach when he wrote for himself. Despite his public image as an arrogant prick, a self-absorbed preening artiste in a nicotine plume, the many women speaking in his remembrance insist, to a person, that this was a pretense, a pre-Gainsbarre falsehood that helped him to endure the discomfort of celebrity, and they recall a kind of 19th century gentleman with a pronounced sense of Old World morality.

Forneri's excellent film has not yet had the official release it deserves on disc. Fortunately the DVD-R copy I viewed was subtitled in English, but the song lyrics (which I'm sure were sometimes introduced to make a relevant complementary point, or to counterpoint a quotation) were not.

Viewed on DVD-R. 

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