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Je T’aime: The Filmic Lives Of Gainsbourg And Birkin

Serge Gainsbourg once remarked that his entire life was a quest for truth via perversity. Gainsbourg made the claim in the immediate aftermath of his celebrated appearance on French television alongside Whitney Houston. Gainsbourg, showing obvious signs of a few too many glasses of fine French wine, had mumbled “I want to fuck her” in response to his impressions of Houston. The moment was classic provocative Gainsbourg – and despite the ensuing media flap, Gainsbourg’s reputation – in France, at least – remained unassailed.
 
Serge Gainsbourg’s image is as iconic as his provocative artistic style: tousled hair, oversized ears, a half-smoked Gitane adhered to his fingers, his facial expression somewhere between sneering attitude and bemused derision. Gainsbourg imbued his artistic pursuits – poetry, songwriting and cinema – with a provocative, and honest, sexuality. For Pascal Forneri, director of the documentary Gainbourg: l’homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved The Women), Gainsbourg’s provocative style was intrinsic to his artistic style. “I think Gainsbourg’s provocative aspect was the creative way for him to give a jolt to his audience,” Forneri says.

After shelving his early career as a painter, Gainsbourg had turned his hand to songwriting, recording and releasing pop songs under his own name, as well as collaborating with other (female) artists including Brigitte Bardot. Gainsbourg wrote Harley Davidson for Bardot – the film clip featured a black leather mini-skirt and thigh-high boot clad Bardot prowling around a motorbike – as well as Je T’Aime ... Moi Non Plus.

Later on Gainsbourg immersed himself in the world of cinema, taking a lead role in films both in front of and behind the camera. It was while making Slogan that Gainsbourg first made the acquaintance of English actress Jane Birkin; within a short period, Gainsbourg and Birkin had become the first couple of the French music and cultural scene. The couple’s breathless performance of Je T’Aime shocked and enthralled audiences across the world, and made Gainsbourg a small fortune. Birkin eventually left Gainsbourg; Gainsbourg, though devastated by Birkin’s departure, continued to write her songs. Later on Gainsbourg composed songs for other French female artists, including Isabel Adjani and Bambou.

It’s said that every American alive on 22 November 1963 can remember where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated; equally, it’s been observed that every French citizen can remember where they were when they heard the news of Gainsbourg’s death from a heart attack in 1991. Pascal Forneri was studying film at UCLA in Los Angeles when the news of the death of France’s most celebrated contemporary artist broke. “I studied in the United States for seven years,” Forneri says.“When I left France, one of the few pieces of cultural capital I took from home was a book on Gainsbourg. I felt that Gainsbourg encapsulated the best of France.”

Upon returning to France, Forneri decided to put together a documentary on Gainsbourg’s life. Forneri’s quest was to highlight the consistent thread of Gainsbourg’s artistic pursuits, and his relationships with women who featured in his art. “I didn’t think there had been a documentary that properly unlocked the keys of Gainsbourg’s work and his life,” Forneri says. “I wanted to show what was strong through his life. I wanted to put on one side some of the more provocative things that he did,” he says. “I was amazed by the way his whole career had a strong aesthetic character. There have been a lot of thing written about Gainsbourg, but there has never been a film made about Serge Gainsbourg and the women in his life,” Forneri says.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Gainsbourg’s relationship with women is his ability to remain on positive terms with his former lovers. “That was something very moving in making the film,” Forneri says. “When we spoke to Jane Birkin, she said it would be the last time she would talk about him. It was very moving to see these women with a lot of love for this man, but in a very true fashion,” Forneri says. “It seemed as if they wanted to protect him in some way. All of these different women truly respected Gainsbourg. When you see documentaries, it’s often the case that people will say bad things about the subject of the documentary – but with Serge Gainsbourg it was different. Gainsbourg never did anything wrong with them. He gave a lot to them,” Forneri says.

For all of Gainsbourg’s provocative and occasionally offensive public attributes, one aspect that continues to shine through is his honesty. “I think his honesty was definitely part of the reason people loved him,” Forneri says. “His audience really liked him a lot, and no-one has managed to do that since him. He managed to pull together great quality work, and also to be very popular, which is great. It is easy to be a great artist and to be snobby, but Gainsbourg manages to put a bridge between sophisticated pop music and literary work,” Forneri says.

So who was the real Serge Gainsbourg – poet, songwriter, provocateur or lover? For Forneri, Gainsbourg was first and foremost an artist. “He did a lot of things – he was a very pygmalion artist. He created images, and he knew how to market what he was doing for an artist,” Forneri says. “What struck me was that he was a very Warholian character. He got new media, and he knew what pop music was all about. And he was not stuck into whether he should be an artist or a sell-out.”
 
Je T’aime: The Filmic Lives Of Gainsbourg And Birkin is a thirteen day film season opening at ACMI on Thursday October 7 and running until Tuesday October 19. For full program information and tickets head to acmi.com.au.