Indiefest taps into new waves of interest in Serge Gainsbourg
FILM/INDIEFEST "Oh, it's a problem with women," Serge Gainsbourg says in an interview clip only a few seconds into Pascal Forneri's entertaining and energetic made-for-TV documentary Gainsbourg, The Man Who Loved Women. For Gainsbourg, the problem was a rewarding one — women were the vehicle by which he moved from a brooding writer of chanson into a national and international provocateur and icon. On an artistic front, Gainsbourg arranged and delivered one musical bouquet after another for a multitude of female singers, to a degree that Forneri's movie has to adopt a breakneck pace just to include some of his best songs. As time goes on, his accomplishment seems equal to, if not greater than, that of the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, and other English-language rock icons.
Opening with over-the-top Gallic narration and arranged into a series of commercial-ready chapters, Gainsbourg, The Man Who Loved Women isn't pretentious, and it takes care to deliver some of Gainsbourg's most infamous televised moments, such as a talk show where he — by that time fully and fatalistically given over to his messy, dissolute Gainsbarre mode — informed a young and imperial Whitney Houston he'd like to fuck her. We also get to enjoy young France Gall naively telling an amused and appreciative Gainsbourg that his latest hit song for her, "Les sucettes," is about "a young girl named Annie who loves lollipops."
But Forneri's movie also reveals the sensitivity beneath Gainsbourg the provocative "women's tailor" of French songwriting. After all, it was Gainsbourg who had Gall sing of herself as "a lonely singing doll." In one interview excerpt, Gainsbourg says that he prefers writing songs for actresses because they are "more spontaneous than your typical moron," then criticizes a market that celebrates and throws away young starlets as inherently "fucked." "It's very hard to find work, and they don't do it for the money," he says bluntly.
Aside from the bombastic narration, Gainsbourg, The Man Who Loved Women's primary commentary comes from the women who worked with and knew Gainsbourg, an illustrious group that includes Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, Juliette Greco, Francoise Hardy, and Vanessa Paradis. One of Forneri's chief stylistic gambits is to leave these interviews off-screen — aside from appearances within archival footage, Gainsbourg's women are present only as voices. In one sense this sharpens a critical view of Gainsbourg the man, but it also masks the individuality of the women's perspectives, turning them all into a single femme.
Nonetheless, there are numerous moments where the likes of Birkin assert their personality. Hardy states that writing for women allowed Gainsbourg to express his "sensitivity" and "sentimentality," an idea that might not be as true when applied to the partnership of Christopher Wallace and Lil' Kim half a decade after Gainsbourg's death. Hip-hop's Bonnie and Clyde duos only follow in the footsteps of Gainsbourg and Bardot, even if Bardot would rather think of herself as George Sand to his Chopin.