The Arty Semite

The Life and Loves of Serge Gainsbourg

By Ralph Seliger

  • Print
  • Share Share

Courtesy of Music Box Films

In a remarkable feat for a man who was not considered good looking, Serge Gainsbourg was celebrated as much for his loves as for his art. He began life in Paris as Lucien Ginsburg, the son of Jewish refugees from the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like his parents, he survived the Holocaust in hiding.

The artful and fast-paced French biopic, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” starring Eric Elmosnino, depicts Gainsbourg’s success as a pop musician and his romantic liaisons with the movie superstar Brigitte Bardot and other women. He was married four times, including to the English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, who is the mother of the best known of his four children, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. It is a bizarre curiosity that his last wife — an actress, singer and model known by the stage name of Bambou — is the granddaughter of Friedrich Paulus, the German field marshal who surrendered at Stalingrad.

Gainsbourg’s physical awkwardness is graphically represented in the film, fittingly directed by the graphic novelist and animator, Joann Sfar. A surreal doppelganger called “La Grueule” (“The Mug”), played by American actor Doug Jones, evolves from a grotesque humpty-dumpty inflated head, taken from a Vichy-era poster for an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda movie, to a hawk-faced monstrosity with devilishly long fingernails.

Parodying Gainsbourg’s supposed ugliness, La Grueule initially appears to give the youthful protagonist a sense of transcendence over his physical self. (Kacey Mottet-Klein, who plays him as a boy is, to my eyes, rather cute, but this may be beside the point.) Yet, in virtually stalking him as an adult, La Grueule’s presence becomes sinister. He may represent Gainsbourg’s self-destructive impulses, which undermine his marriages and damage his health. Elmosnino won a César (French Oscar) for his portrayal of the adult Gainsbourg, who drank and smoked incessantly and died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 62.

Gainsbourg is probably best remembered for the enigmatic, sensual words and entrancing rhythm of “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You… Me Neither”), in versions recorded separately with Brigitte Bardot (1967) and Jane Birkin (1969). The lyrics include this more than suggestive line: “Je vais et je viens, entre tes reins” (“I go and I come, in between your loins”), accompanied by heavy breathing. This song is now being featured in a French television commercial for perfume, directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Natalie Portman.

Sfar, the film’s writer and director, also won a César for Best First Film. His experience as a cartoonist and graphic artist is evident in the vividly colorful animation of the opening credits. Gainsbourg also began in the visual arts as a painter, performing at piano bars to finance his initial artistic passion. Also like Gainsbourg, Sfar is a French Jew.

If you’re like me, you may struggle to find a profound or moral message to this breezily-told story of a child Holocaust survivor who makes it big — but you shouldn’t bother. This is an entertaining movie about a French cultural icon whom most Americans hardly knew.

Watch the trailer for ‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life:’


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Serge Gainsbourg, Joann Sfar, Kacey Mottet-Klein, La Grueule, Ralph Seliger, Jane Birkin, Film, Brigitte Bardot, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino, Bambou, A Heroic Life

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.