Serge and the soul of modern France

By celebrating Gallic daring and flashing back to anti-Semitism, Gainsbourg captures France’s identity crisis.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

It would be difficult to make a dull film about someone as fearlessly unconventional as iconic French songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991).

This, after all, was the man who coaxed a teenage starlet unwittingly to sing a song about oral sex; who outraged French nationalists by releasing a reggae version of ‘La Marseillaise’ with Jamaican musicians, Sly and Robbie; who propositioned Whitney Houston live on French TV. His sex obsession wasn’t all talk, either; he seduced the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco and Jane Birkin. In Britain, he is best known for the chart-topping moan-and-groanathon ‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’ and largely remains a minority interest here. In France, however, he has long been held up as a national treasure, a symbol of Gallic panache, style and defiant rule-breaking. And today, you can’t help wonder whether the French need him more than ever.

As a first-time director, Joann Sfar does a credible job with Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in charting the many colourful incidents in Serge’s career. There are so many rich pickings in Gainsbourg’s life that some of them, the aforementioned Houston controversy and the ‘Lemon Incest’ single that he recorded with his daughter Charlotte, are left out. Likewise, Gainsbourg’s relationships are sometimes covered in a sketchy way; his life with his first wife, Elisabeth ‘Lize’ Levitsky, is mentioned only fleetingly.

To be fair, though, Sfar appears intent on giving us a psychological portrait of Gainsbourg (superbly played by Eric Elmosnino), an exploration of what fuelled his demons, insecurities and ambitions. The film starts with the young Lucien Ginsburg – his real name – experiencing the degradations of Nazi-occupied Paris. As Jews, he and his family are forced to wear the yellow star and to look at grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures everywhere they turn. This is perhaps the most eye-catching part of Gainsbourg – it’s an unflinching examination of French complicity in the persecution of its Jewish citizens. Elsewhere, the film notes how Gainsbourg’s ‘trouble making’ was sometimes blamed on his Jewishness, and was therefore said to have played a part in stirring up anti-Semitism.

All of this is dealt with in an impressive, playful style: an anti-Semitic caricature from a Nazi poster comes to life and follows young Lucien around. Later on, a similar grotesque version of Gainsbourg himself, ‘The Mug’, acts as a sort of right-hand demon, willing Gainsbourg on to greater mischief, seduction and, importantly, artistic achievement.

We see Gainsbourg the struggling painter and writer, earning a crust playing muzak piano in Paris bars before discovering his real strengths as a witty lyricist and strikingly original songwriter capable of turning his hand to any musical genre. Curiously for a music biopic, Gainsbourg’s songs only make cameo appearances, such as when Bardot (Laetitia Casta) zips up her boots to the sound of an instrumental version of Harley Davidson. And there’s an amusing scene where, mid-1970s, Gainsbourg tries his hand at jerky new wave – successfully – with his notorious ‘Nazi Rock’ single. Unfortunately, no amount of stylistic brilliance compensates for his declining 1980s period, wherein Gainsbourg’s Olympian intake of cigarettes and alcohol took its toll on his appearance, voice and general demeanor. It almost unravels the iconography he created during his peak, but the fact he could still pull beautiful young women suggests he hadn’t quite lost it.

The fascinating thing about Gainsbourg is as much what it says about contemporary France as about Serge’s life. The film was released in France in the midst of a national debate on French identity. And since the fiasco of France’s World Cup campaign in South Africa this summer – when the team revolted against the coach and suffered an ignominious early exit – this identity crisis has intensified. One French journalist reckons that the ‘bad-tempered, illiterate and uncultured’ national football team are symptomatic of a broader malaise across the whole of French society. The world of art, music and writing so lovingly portrayed in Gainsbourg is no doubt a forlorn reminder of the High Life that France was once fondly associated with.

Serge’s musical gifts are an advertisement for the cultural gifts that the French nation has often given Europe and the rest of the world. But the film’s recurring meditation on racism and anti-Semitism in France – and the constant shadow of Nazi collaboration – is also a signifier of national self-loathing and self-doubt. Indeed, last year’s French remake of the Gaullist 1969 film Army of Shadows, retitled Army of Crime, acknowledged the French state’s complicity in Nazi atrocities that the original left out. This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

In this sense, France is going through a similar bout of national self-abasement to the one Britain has been experiencing for the past 10 years or so. Revelations and then movies about Britain’s dirty war in Northern Ireland have become commonplace, as have apologies from on high for Britain’s colonial record generally and its role in the African slave trade.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was on to something when he said he was worried about the shift towards ‘self-hatred’ within French society and its potentially destructive impact. Unfortunately, his call for a debate about ‘national identity’ has been as clumsy as that initiated by British politicians, while his decision to stop Muslim women wearing the burqa in public suggests that France really has lost its understanding of what it means to be a secular, liberal nation rooted in Enlightenment values.

Gainsbourg appears to be influenced by these contemporary tensions in French society. While on the one hand it happily plays on the Gallic stereotypes of freedom-loving aesthetes with a liberal attitude towards sex, it also morbidly dwells on the Nazi occupation and residual racism across French society. Appealing to past glories and abasing past disgraces, however, won’t help resolve the question of French national identity today. The French only need to look across the Channel to see the folly in that strategy.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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