Every musician is a bit of an actor. And he behaves as such on stage while singing his songs, in the music videos promoting those same songs, in interviews and in public places. Serge Gainsbourg, besides, was the actor of his own immense and self-devised personal film, in which converged reality, fantasy, creativity and provocation. He even made up an alter ego, Gainsbarre, who in many ways ended up devouring him. Gainsbourg did the mise-en-scène of his own life. Today, seeing the recordings of his live shows, face-to-face TV interviews, performances and music videos, we realise that he always directed himself, be it with studied or involuntary premeditation. His promotional films from the fifties and sixties and his music videos were always unusual; they were filmed songs.
Since Douze Belles dans la Peau, shot in black and white and broadcast in 1958, with the camera on Gainsbourg while he sings and moves around an artificial set that tries to be nothing but what it is, a set, until Charlotte For Ever, a clip made up of fragments of the colour film of the same title shot in 1986, the third of the four directed by Gainsbourg, the evolution of the images of the French singer, composer, actor and director has an amazing coherence despite the vital and artistic ups and downs he suffered in those three decades, from learning to maturity, through a process characterised by acknowledgment, controversy and a non-conformism dyed of acre cynicism.
The character, be it Gainsbourg or Gainsbarre, alone or in a duet, not only materialises his music –his own albums, songs for others, concerts and videos– and film production –before and behind the camera–, but has authorship traces even when he accepts to be interviewed and marks the territory with words and, even more, with gestures and silences. What seems spontaneity, surprise or indolence, is in fact affected. Obviously, he’s not the only artist directing the mise-en-scène of his filmed interviews much more than the interviewer and producer of the programme, or controlling the visual elements of a music video much better than its director. But he is definitely one of the most interesting ones to analyse and study.
In an interview from 1965 for Denise Glaser’s Discorama, Gainsbourg still cultivates an introvert –and seducing– image, spiced up by a childish laugh he uses to play around with his antagonist and to banish any kind of serious reflection about his music. He says when he was young he destroyed all his paintings, but now he can’t do the same with his records because there are many copies published of each. That’s as much as Glaser can get out of him while Gainsbourg, who’s still Gainsbourg and hasn’t yet turned into his alcoholic and troublemaker alter ego, Gainsbarre, mockingly smiles. In another interview from the end of the same year, the musician chooses movement despite his almost absolute dominion of the static position within the framing: here we see him in flea markets, bookshops, boutiques, cafés and a merry-go-round while the answers to the questions are heard as a voice-over.
Three years later, during a new TV appearance, a medium in which he felt totally at ease, he disarms his interviewer with long silences before every answer, pauses without any sort of continuity, laughs and looks: this well-thought-of resources are more eloquent than what he says about painting, poetry –“I don’t write poems, but expressions that rhyme”, he affirms–, notoriety, scepticism and the mask of total cynicism behind which he’s decided to hide himself. The producer of the programme seems to have accepted Gainsbourg’s rules, since he never changes the framing, with the musician seen from the front and the interviewer from the back, but that might also be a way to boycott the artist’s provocation by not allowing us to see the nervous reactions of who’s interviewing him. When he has to talk about films, in a 1982 programme, he prefers to do so in a bar, playing pinball or with his elbows on the bar in front of a glass of anisette. Evidently, he says interesting things, not everything is provocation or artifice: the version of La Marseillaise he did as a reggae is revolutionary because reggae music is revolutionary, he tells an interviewer looking for easy controversy, and he also defends something that today is not so accepted: that the best thing about films is that they allow you to forget reality inside a dark room.
Since he practised chanson, jazz, pop, rock, reggae and disco music, the styles chosen for each one of his filmed songs were modelled according to each age and genre, but always taking as a starting point the same and unchangeable concept: the first person. Gainsbourg is always the main character in this films, be it reconstructions or live shows; it’s his songs and his body and his voice, they can be no one else’s, and they’re always mainly shown as close-ups or fixed frames, what radically fixes his protagonism. It’s impossible to find a similar homogeneity in the whole history of music videos. Total asceticism comes with Le Claqueur de Doigts, three minutes full of close-ups of the musician and extreme close-ups of him snapping his fingers, in an almost Bressonian sort of minimalism. In La Chanson de Prévert he maintains a defiant duel with the camera, between distant and proud. The whole thing is resolved with a front medium shot looking at the camera, although afterwards, in different versions of La Javanaise, he opts for a big close-up, conscious of the bewitching magnetic nature of his face –he defined his physique as disturbing–, but looking sideways towards an indeterminate point.
The camera can’t have enough of him and he can’t have enough of the camera. But every now and then, movement appears. The action is taken outside the set in Adieu Creature, with Gainsbourg singing while he drives his car on a provincial road, or in La Nuit d’Octobre, now walking around the ruins of a castle. The live format is also valid. The promotional films for Le Poinçonneur des Lilas and La Recette de l’Amour Fou are resolved with live performances in night clubs, without any long shots or audience inserts, while during the late seventies and early eighties, the recordings of concerts will be more orthodox although they show his almost rock-like or post-punk fever. Les Petites Pavés is a singular performance case: Gainsbourg performs in a club dressed with top hat, tuxedo and eye mask, as if he was a chansonnier version of Arsène Lupin.
L’Appareil à Sous, the film with the coarsest production in his classic period, initiates his audiovisual affair with Brigitte Bardot: he sings surrounded by pictures of B. B. This relationship will crystallise in two amazing videos, the first in colour of his whole career: Bonnie and Clyde –directed by François Reichenbach on the same year, 1968, in which he would direct the popular Portrait: Orson Welles–, with its film noir set and chiaroscuros, and with Bardot imitating the Faye Dunaway of Arthur Penn’s film; and Comic Strip, with its lively pop comic mise-en-scène. His most precise and imaginative work will arrive four years later, with four songs the performances of which, linked one after the other, create a micro-story. Gainsbourg climbs the narrow stair of a flat while he sings Scenic Railway. The song ends when he arrives at the top floor. Le Temps des Yoyos goes on inside the flat. Elaeudanla Téïtéïa is sung in the bedroom and the version of standard All The Things You Are is interpreted in the living room, with Gainsbourg on the piano, a guitar and a double-bass player. The two musicians are exceptional figures given Gainsbourg’s generalised physical protagonism in his music stories, with the exception of his duets with female collaborators, actresses, wives and daughters.
There’s Les Sucettes, of course, sung by France Gall as if the perverse lyrics about aniseed sweets was the most normal thing in the world, surrounded by dancers in a TV mise-en-scène that, should it have a zoom, could have been filmed by Valerio Lazarov. Apart from his conspiratorial performances with Bardot, there’s also the no less close dance with Anna Karina in Ne Dis Rien, another proof that Gainsbourg felt a lot better with the camera on top of him than in a long shot. And then there are the films with Jane Birkin. In 69 Année Érotique, he sings sitting on the piano while she’s lying on top of it; the orchestra is at the back, but the musicians never play: eulogising the playback. Histoire de Melody Nelson is a narrative film that goes well with the record’s conceptual nature. Directed by Jean-Christophe Averty, it has a touch of noir romanticism (first person narrative voice, atmosphere) but with visual effects typical of the moment’s pop psychedelia.
Gainsbourg never ceased to experiment with his filmed songs. There’s no problem in having the camera not filming him in Qui Est In Qui Est Out because between him and the lens we can see the little planes of a fair attraction moving around. In Requiem Pour Un Con he accepts a stylised shot in the recording studio, with constant inserts showing the instruments and a bluish light that reminds us of the cover of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. At the end enters the studio Jean Gabin, protagonist of the police film the song belongs to, Le pacha, and we’re left without the countershot showing Gainsbourg after the challenging look the old French film hero gives him. In Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais, the interpretation is so heartfelt –in a track that increased his fame of misogynist– that the producer opts for focusing on his face all the time while diluting at the back, in a stylised red tone, the piano player and the orchestra. The body of the musician is multiplied by a mirror in Par Hasard Et Pas Rasé, although in the contrary of what happens in Pink Floyd’s award-winning Ummagumma cover, the resulting image is always the same one. This idea is more or less is repeated in Ecce Homo, but here everything’s dark and Gainsbourg is wearing sunglasses: he had already entered his most self-destructive and troublemaker phase, devoured by Gainsbarre. That’s the way we see him in Sea Sex and Sun, clumsily moving between two black go-gos. Any trace of the dandy has been completely eliminated, even when in Dieu Fumeur de Havanes he sings with glamorous Catherine Deneuve at the tacky set of programme Stars: although they look at each other and smile, the actress of Repulsion takes Gainsbourg’s hand off her shoulder each time he tries to slide it down a bit further; a despicable gesture within the artifice of representation. The following Love on the Beat, with Gainsbourg surrounded by strippers –among them Bambou, his partner at the time–, and Lemon Incest, a music video directed by himself about an incestuous burst with his daughter Charlotte, took him to the place he had actively and passively sought: the eye of the hurricane. To get there he had used words, melodies, rhymed expressions and images.
Films, it goes without saying, were also part of his particular ecosystem. Very few are the film directors who have made music (Charles Chaplin, John Carpenter, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, Alejandro Amenábar, Hal Hartley, Emir Kusturica, Woody Allen, J. J. Abrams) and even less the musicians who have directed films (Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Prince, Rob Zombie). Gainsbourg directed four films between 1976 and 1990: Je t’aime moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte For Ever and Stan the Flasher, apart from appearing in many and varied films directed by others. He was a better actor in a TV set or a stage than on the big screen. As a director he didn’t try, precisely, to get the audience to evade from reality in a dark room. And if they did, they found themselves with a fantasy more disturbing than real life. If Équateur mixes eroticism and intrigue in African scenarios and Charlotte For Ever insists in the complicated relationship between a father and a daughter (again the two Gainsbourgs, Serge and Charlotte, roughly two years after Lemon Incest), Je t’aime moi non plus takes as an excuse the eponymous song he composed for Bardot and ended up performing with Birkin in 1969 to show a story with a sexual drive in the dumping site of feelings.
The title was an imposition of the producer to generate expectations, but the truth is that song and film have more than a point of connection. Physical love is a dead-end, Gainsbourg sang, and in the film the obstacle is made true in the relationship between Krassky (Joe Dallesandro) and Johnny (Jane Birkin). The initial images are simple but premonitory: a crow crushes against the dirty windscreen of the dust car owned by Krassky and his partner and lover Padovan (Hugues Quester), leaving a trail of thick blood on the glass stained by dust and mud. As a director, Gainsbourg leaves delicacy aside (apart from his music arrangements) to conceive images in violent contrast or drastic opposition, avoiding any idea of subtleness. Birkin offers her most androgynous image, dressed as a boy, with very short hair and a male name because she has no tits or a big bum, she says. Krassky and Padovan collect garbage, used clothes, and abandoned urinals. Johnny works in a greasy burger place owned by an even more greasy guy called Boris; the film is devoted to Boris Vian, without a doubt a reference in conceiving this dirty story, very physical and French in its inappropriate comments, literary dialogues and the histrionics or atonality of the actors.
The village where the action takes place is in a dark corner of France and Gainsbourg takes his anger out on it; provocation is not so much due to sexual actions, but to an outlook on a despicable France. Boris buys horsemeat for the burgers. A homosexual walking around the place on a white horse affirms he has destroyed many of his lovers’ bums with his big cock. Jealous Padovan, brutally beaten up by the village bullies because of his homosexuality, tries to suffocate Johnny with a plastic bag. The party at Boris’ workshop includes a pathetic stripper contest and a jerk-off attitude on behalf of the male audience. In that context, inside the workshop, we hear for the first time the song, Je t’aime moi nos plus, in an instrumental version, and it will be heard again with each scene of painful sexual intercourse between Krassky and Johnny: he can’t penetrate her from the front, because he doesn’t get aroused despite the girl’s masculine body, and she accepts being sodomised, as if she was Padovan, in several public and private places in which her pain screams alert everybody. By contrast, in opposition to the harshness of physical love and moral grime, the soundtrack is elaborated with a cheery piano roll, including a country track played with a banjo: pure Gainsbourg in his more sceptic phase.