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Gainsbourg, Vie Héroïque (A Heroic Life)



This film, not to mention its complex subject, is most likely only on the radar of the most dedicated cinephiles, and surely only francophile cinephiles at that.   While receiving much acclaim in France, winning Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for best first film (that would be an interesting category for the Oscars, non?) for its director Joann Sfar  and best actor for Eric Elmosnino, whose physical resemblance to and portrayal of Gainsbourg is so uncanny as to anxiously suggest a limited career.  I don’t anticipate the film making much of an impact in the US, despite its very unique use of CGI animation.

Pourquoi?  Despite  the fact that Serge Gainsbourg’s songs are as integral to the French songbook as Sinatra’s are to America’s, they are unknown here.  An understanding of his life and personality are necessary to appreciating these songs, and even if Americans knew of Serge Gainsbourg, I don’t think they would revere him as do the French, let alone accept him at all.

Seeing this film without knowing this background is not worth your time.  Even I was not armed with enough information to appreciate certain scenes. So, for those who are curious and would like to be able to appreciate this unique film,  I am happy to put Serge Gainsbourg in context as his work does deserve more understanding and appreciation.

Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in 1921, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants.  He came of age during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and as the film sensitively shows, the mistreatment he endured led to an insatiable urge to avenge his experience by provoking the establishment.  Although young Lucien hid the Jewish star he was supposed to wear, his homely appearance, with unfortunate protruding ears, never let him feel attractive and prevented him from passing as anything other than he was.  At an early age, such abuse leads to life-long inner turmoil, and young Lucien’s demon literally comes to life in the film, as was depicted in the graphic novel created by the director.  As a child, the demon is a Humpty Dumpty-type creature (that unfortunately reminded me of the papier-mâché caricature used in “Borat’s”  fictitious “Running of the Jews” custom); in adulthood the figure is a more human-like, 3-D Tim Burton-esque “Sesame Street” Count.  He embodies Lucien’s inner defiance, coaches him to pre-empt attacks with clever quips, and encourages him to abandon painting and become a singer whose name will be the less Jewish, less foppish “Serge Gainsbourg.”

Serge resists; he wants to be a painter, as much for the art as for the opportunity to be around nude women, but since the piano playing pays the bills, he succumbs.   Serge emerges to center stage when influential jazz critic Boris Vian recognizes his way with words.  He begins to write songs, notably for chanteuse Juliette Gréco and the actress Brigitte Bardot before performing his works himself.

It is important to note that  a French style of pop music emerged in the late 1960s known as “Yé-Yé.”   Its whimsy contrasted with the more dominant anti-war, hippie inspired music popular in America at that time . The songs were original and fun. The creation of the song “Comic Strip” is depicted, but seeing the clip captures the song better.

Comic Strip

Even though Gainsbourg was now a performer, he still composed songs for other singers,  In 1965, he penned the Grand Prix winning song for the (then) prestigious Eurovison Song Contest for the young singer France Gall.  Their collaboration being successful, he composed a follow-up single.  This event is briefly depicted in the film, but the details and devastating consequences are omitted.  Wanting to undermine the authority of her father, (and likely the establishment) he writes the song “Les Sucettes” for her and explains it’s simply a song about a girl who likes lollipops.  Naïvely, she sings the lyrics “Annie aime les sucettes, les sucettes à l’anis” (“Annie likes lollipops, licorice lollipops”).  In addition to the catchy alliteration, his talent for double meaning is apparent, as she is completely unaware that the lyrics are suggestive of fellatio.  The videoclip (France Gall \”Les Sucettes\”) is outrageous:  she sings in a little girl voice, holding a lollipop shaped more like a popsicle, the phallic symbolism further reinforced with life-sized phallic dancing lollipops.  Upon realizing the implications, she went into hiding remaining bitter about the incident for years to come.  The film suggests he is merely a hip, friendly guy encouraging her not to be square; the truth is he knowingly and  unapologetically sacrificed the well-being of a young girl.

During this same period, while having a torrid, ego-inflating affair with Bardot, Serge composed his controversial song “Je t’aime, moi non plus” (“I love you, me neither”), but its simulated orgasms and moaning are too much for Bardot’s boyfriend who prevents the song from being released.

Fortunately, the young English actress Jane Birkin was game and the song was eventually released with her vocals.  If Gainsbourg ever had a moment of international fame, it was in 1969 when the song was released.  It was banned by the Vatican, the BBC, and as is usually the case, censorship breeds popularity.

Sadly, the actress who delivers a spot-on depiction of Jane Birkin, Lucy Gordon, committed suicide after shooting this film in May of 2009.  The film is dedicated to her.

Birkin and Gainsbourg embarked on a 13 year long passionate affair, played out in public.  She was his willing muse; her youth, beauty, and devotion to him validated his primal need to be sexually desirable.  But because this need was pathologized by childhood trauma, it was impossible to satisfy, and his demonic personality finally assimilates with his true self,  illustrated literally in the film.  In life,  Serge reinvented himself as Gainsbarre.  This persona first appeared  on the album “L’Homme à la Tête de Chou” (“Cabbage Head Man”) which came out in 1976, the mid-point of his and Birkin’s relationship.  This is not explained in the film; suddenly we see Gainsbourg inexplicably walking around the streets of Paris with a CGI cabbage-head.  As time goes by, the delineation between Gainsbourg and Gainsbarre dissovles.  Gainsbarre has metastasized his ego.  He drinks himself into stupors, inhales more tobacco smoke than oxygen, and, not depicted in the film, abuses his family, ultimately prompting Birkin to leave him.  Birkin never stopped loving him and has said that she loved Gainsbourg, but couldn’t live with Gainsbarre.

In 1978, Gainsbourg released the album “Aux Armes et Cætera” which included a reggae version of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise.”  Some veterans of the Algerian War considered a reggae version disrespectful and issued death threats.  The film shows angry soldiers and Gainsbourg’s apology (he sincerely didn’t mean to offend), but doesn’t explain the context.

Gainsbourg had a daughter with Jane Birkin, Charlotte in 1971, now a respected actress in and recording artist in her own right.  American audiences are likely familiar with her work, she has acted in English language films.  She is a more popular actress in France, and American audiences would not be familiar with the work she did with her father as a teenager that tested the limits of the tolerant French.  The young actress who portrays Charlotte in the film looks just like Charlotte did as a young girl, but important details of their relationship are entirely absent.

In 1984, Serge released a single with his then 12 year-old daughter titled “Lemon Incest.”  The lyrics are a clever play on words:  “Un zeste de citron” while meaning “a lemon zest” sounds like “inceste de citron,” ( “lemon incest”).  The ambiguity of the other lyrics didn’t lessen the shock, nor did the video that shows Serge shirtless wearing jeans lying in bed next to his daughter who’s only wearing a t-shirt and panties.  In 1986, the film “Charlotte For Ever” which he directed, wrote, and starred in alongside his daughter was released; she appeared nude in many scenes.  The film did not cause a scandale, though it certainly raised many eyebrows, thanks to Charlotte’s compelling film presence and the unmistakeably appropriate love of a father for his daughter that was clearly beneath the surface provocation.

After Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg had another relationship and child, but his music became eclipsed by his unpredictable and offensive appearances on French television.  In one appearance, he burnt a 500 franc note (an illegal act in France), in another he abused the singer Catherine Ringer of the duo Rita Mitsouko.  Having been very upfront to the public about her previous career as a pornographic actress before achieving musical success, Gainsbourg relentlessly called her a whore as they shared a talk show couch.  Although she deftly handled his attacks, and although his sentiments are not unreasonable in the abstract, his abusive manner is uncomfortable to watch.  The final straw came when Gainsbourg appeared with a young Whitney Houston in 1986, and in English repeatedly spoke of his desire to sodomize her; she was unsettled to say the least.  After that incident, he was banned from appearing on live television.

He continued to perform, even as his health and mental state were visibly deteriorating. His appearances in interviews and concerts show him appearing slovenly, unshaven, malnourished, nonsensical, and more provocative than ever.  He died in 1991, at the age of 62 of a heart attack.

So why would anyone, let alone a country, revere such a seemingly despicable man?  While it would be convenient to always invoke Jerry Lewis for French lapses in taste, such an explanation is too simplistic.  His body of work is impressive, if not staggering:  550+ songs, 30 albums, directed 4 movies, acted in 29; his music included the genres of  jazz, ballads, bossa nova, rock, pop, reggae, lounge, and mambo.  Besides Bardot, he helped other top French actresses achieve their singing dreams, among them:  Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, and Isabelle Adjani.  He wrote and produced Vanessa Paradis (aka Johnny Depp’s babymama)’ 2nd album, which enabled her to go from Britney Spears-like pop sensation to be taken seriously as a singer.  In my opinion, it’s her best album.  However, this list of accomplishments does not explain why he is so revered.

I think that in Gainsbourg, the French recognized and embraced a part of their national character that had been sublimated during the occupation and war, the humiliation of which should not be underestimated.  Serge, being Jewish, assuaged some of the guilt of France’s complicity for their role in the fate of the French Jews, and he did not punish them with constant reminders, despite his first-hand experience as a victim.  He embraced their language, elevated it even, and embodied the spirit of the victory of the underdog and defiance of authority, qualities that  appeal to the French national character.   When he burnt the 500 franc note on TV, he was protesting French taxes, but wasn’t refusing to pay them as were fellow celebrities in tax exile. He was giving the finger to “the man,” as we would say, and inviting  the French public to share in the joy and freedom of defiance.

“Gainsbourg, A Heroic Life” will be shown during the St Louis International Film Festival at Plaza Frontenac:

Friday, November 18th @ 7pm

Sunday, November 20th @ 3:30 pm


This site was borne of my passion for movies, particularly French films. I have spent time in France and am fluent in the language, hence the “le”. The “snob” part, while of French origin, is not meant to intimidate, but rather an effort to reclaim the word from the pretentious, just as the gay community has done with the word “queer.” We’re all snobs; we all like what we like.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your insightful backgrounder of Serge Gainsbourg. Your detailed depiction of his life makes me want to see a movie I might have otherwise passed on. Keep up the fabuleux work (and feel free to correct my French). I’ll be back!

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