Je t’aime … moi nonplussed

I’ve seen two French films in two days at two different Curzon cinemas, one I enjoyed and admired, one I didn’t. But hey, as much as I am drawn to French cinema, I can’t like everything they produce, can I? That would be insane. (I don’t like Camembert either.)

On Sunday I saw Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (or Partir) at the Curzon Mayfair. It’s Kristin Scott Thomas once again playing an adopted Frenchwoman wreaking domestic havoc with her bone structure and soft eyes. In Phillipe Caudel’s much-lauded I’ve Loved You So Long, her Anglo-French accent was explained by her character having grown up in England and moved to France. In this, it’s the same thing – in fact, her character, Suzanne, says she came to France to work as an au pair, just as Scott Thomas did aged 19. Neat. To me, her French is perfect, but I suspect that’s to my British ears. Scott Thomas has certainly found an enviable position in European cinema thanks to her dual citizenship and easy confidence in two tongues. Plus, of course, she is an amazing, unshowy actress, making these flawed heroines both incredibly attractive and authentically fallible.

Here, she does what Tilda Swinton did in I Am Love (hey, another actress deftly crossing the Channel, playing Anglo-Italian in an Italian film): casts aside the restrictions of a middle class lifestyle by having rough outdoor sex with a peasant. A housewife and mother looking to return to work as a physio after 15 years of devotion to the family, Suzanne falls for the Spanish builder sent to convert a garage into a surgery – they are seen sweatily clearing the rubbish out together and when they share a Corona beer, a connection is credibly made.

Even though she’s in the wrong – her breadwinning husband, a doctor (Yvan Attal), is essentially decent, if controlling and patronising – we must identify with her while she transgresses. This is possible because of the convincing chemistry of Scott Thomas and Catalan actor Sergi Lopez (the brutal Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth). All credit to Corsini for providing the bed, as it were, for this onscreen relationship. When hubby plays rough on discovery of the affair, our sympathies should lie with him, but again, through subtlety of script and acting, the tide turns and he becomes the villain of the piece.

While watching Leaving – and trying to ignore the old man in the same row as me, clearing his throat in a most sonorously booming and repetitive manner throughout – I wondered why I love French films so much. The plot of this film is: wife falls in love with builder, leaves husband, husband gets cross. That’s kind of it. Who would make that film in this country? And yet, it’s done with such easy realism and actually unphotogenic sexual passion, you buy into it. The script doesn’t feel written, although it clearly was, and in fact should feel more written as it’s been translated into subtitles, which I am reading. But it would be way too convenient to say that French drama is always more realistically written. Sometimes, it’s more poetic than English, but again, that may be in translation. I like the way French sounds, with its ums and ahs, as if the speaker is always searching for the right way to convey something. Just an observation.

I guess I’m attracted to the French lifestyle, like the impressionable chump I am. Not the affluence we often see in these domestic dramas; it’s the simple things are what make it attractive: bread, coffee, wine, beer, little cars, crunchy driveways, a national anthem that sings of the tyrant’s blood-stained banner …

However, I have discovered, via Joann Sfar’s intriguing new biopic Gainsbourg, which I saw at the Curzon Wimbledon yesterday, that I can’t stand the music of Serge Gainsbourg. Actually, what I discovered, by way of what is a deliberately unreliable narrative, is that I hardly know any of his canon beyond the super-obvious Je t’aime … moi non plus and Bonnie & Clyde. Sfar based his film on his own stylised graphic novel, which is what makes it so unusual. Do not expect La vie en rose. In it, fanciful vignettes help to build a partial picture of Gainsbourg’s early life – growing up Jewish under the Vichy government during the war and being hidden at a Catholic boarding school in the country, before smarming his way into art school where he discovered nude ladies – but the first jarring device is when a massive Jewish face starts following the boy around, and is then replaced by a Mr Noseybonk-style apparition (played with great bodily fluidity by Doug Jones, also seen, or not seen, in Pan’s Labyrinth), with a big nose, big ears and big fingers – which actually appear to play the piano at one point.

His “ugliness” is a key theme – he is dismissed as “ugly” by a little girl on the beach in the first scene, and his “mug” does more than just follow him around like a sinister, anti-Semitic Frank Sidebottom. You sense that Gainsbourg spent his whole life taking revenge on the world for calling him ugly. He seduced all those beauties – Bardot, Birkin, Hardy – once he was famous because he could, and because he shouldn’t have been allowed to. (By the way, Birkin is warmly played by model Lucy Gordon, who subsequently hanged herself, which makes her scenes extra poignant and sad.)

It’s an interesting approach, and having enjoyed Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’s abstract expressionism, I have no problem with Sfar’s infidelity to the truth, and his literal mythologising of La vie heroique, the film’s subtitle. (Apparently a supportive Charlotte Gainsbourg wanted it this way, too.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough. Some sequences are presented as feverish fantasy, and periods seem to merge into one another, without any of that anal captioning of years etc., meanwhile Gainsbourg has conversations with himself, and his parents seem to be played for pantomime giggles. The Bridget Bardot sequence – in which Laetitia Casta, the model, has fun with a bedsheet – might be a scene from a musical, set as it is to more of his songs, including a particularly irksome ditty called Comic Strip. But I think we are supposed also to treat Bardot as a flesh-and-blood character. And it’s impossible to care about any of them. They come across as ciphers.

Added to which, Gainsbourg, even in this mythic reading, is a bit of a prick throughout. If, like many non-French people, you do not connect with his chanson period, or his 60s paedo-pop (Les sucettes), or his pretty desperate-seeming late brush with reggae, it’s hard to let him off for being arrogant and irresponsible and horrible and self-destructive and a bad dad. By the end, I was wishing death upon him. And when he stumbles into a studio in Jamaica and the entire band of local musicians seem to know exactly what he wants them to play, even though he can barely form words, is just pure fromage. Again, this might have worked if the whole thing had been a Pink Floyd: The Wall-style fantasy, into which Noseybonk and Big Jewish Face would have fitted perfectly.

A great performance by Eric Elmosnino, he looks uncannily like Gainsbourg, but not a film to fall in love with. I feel disloyal for not liking a French film – as I did a few months ago with Father Of My Children, which none other than my critical hero Anthony Lane praised – but this one I was wriggling to get out of.

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12 thoughts on “Je t’aime … moi nonplussed

  1. Everyone I know (four people, all of whose judgement I respect) has said that the Gainsbourg film left them cold (though none of them made a Frank Sidebottom reference into their assessment of the film.). Maybe we Anglo-Saxons just don’t understand or appreciate the appeal of Serge – an apparently venal, amoral distillation of unrestrained Gallic masculinity. I could never see it myself, and I’m determined to come back as a French woman next time.

    I’m looking forward to checking out the Kristin Scott-Thomas one, though. For all that it sounds like yet another narrow variation on the Madame Bovary theme, I just can’t get enough cinematic French adultery.

  2. ‘…easy realism and actually unphotogenic sexual passion’.

    The two reasons I love French cinema; Vendredi Soir being the ultimate distillation of what you say.

  3. I’d take issue with the comment about Gainsbourg’s music, I’ve read a lot of comments on this film and it seems everyone (at least those that I have read) pretty much only liked Je T’aime – probably because (apart from maybe Bonny and Clyde) are the only ones that are known.

    I’m not saying that Gainsbourg’s songs are all master pieces, they are not and I haven’t seen the film (I have no interest in the person) so I cannot comment on what was played in it.

    However the sheer musical variety of Gainsbourg is astonishing. Just the classic Album ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’ (which has a ridiculous premise – man in rolls royce knocks over girl on bike and falls in love etc etc) has so many different styles and the musician ship and craft is something that frankly I find lacking in most ‘pop’ artists.

    I don’t normally give a rat’s arse about whose music is good or bad, and I can take the fact that someone might not like a song but unless you have actually bothered to look out his canon, you really should.

    The only other contemporary ‘musician’ I can think of that has as many styles and weird (and very often unexpected and wonderful) output is The Fall.

    I’m slightly disappointed Andrew that you seemed to fall into the cliche appreciation of Gainsbourg’s music, I can understand not like one or two songs but basing his whole output on Je T’aime or that everything else was not like it is incredibly ignorant.

    Sorry but I felt I needed to say it and I don;t even like a lot of his stuff either. But credit where it is due.

    • I’m sorry to have disappointed you, Adam. I can’t make myself like something. I thought it was clear from my review that I didn’t know much of his work, but now I have seen the film I know a lot of his work, as there are tons of his songs all the way through it. I didn’t like them. This is not a big problem for me. I’m not sure why it’s a problem for you. I know people who can’t stand Elvis Costello’s voice. I love it. I would not be “disappointed” to find out they didn’t like it. And I wouldn’t accuse them of being a “cliche” for not liking it. Pretty harsh reaction.

      • Andrew,

        I’m still not sure I would retract the ignorant label (not in the perjorative sense though you understand – it was never intended to be that) based on watching a film with ‘some music’ through it.

        I didn’t want to either get into a ‘this is good/bad I hate/love’ argument as it is usually facile. My point was that you (and others) seemed to use the fact that they didn’t like the music as some kind of comment on SG.

        I haven’t seen the film but doubt that it really does any justice to his canon like going to watch ‘Amadeus’ make someone ‘know’ Mozart’s music, but I was curious enough many years ago to go and buy a lot of his music inspired by some French colleaugues I worked with who kept telling me about him and me not being able to get past the ‘Je t’aime’, and while most of it was not to my taste, I could see the ‘genius’ (and I would use genius in the proper term here) in his musical ability.

        As to his brush with Reggae it was far from ‘desperate’, it was just a move in another direction, whether it worked or not is beside the point. The fact was SG wanted to have a go, to see what was possible. The whole project nearly never got off the ground with the musicians he wanted to play with being very non-plussed and thinking (probably like you) that a white man was just trying to jump on a bandwagon. It wasn’t until the manager (or producer) mentioned that SG wrote J t’aime and that it was one of the musicians most favourite song that the project then happened.

        On this reggae album SG also crossed a line with the French by doing a ‘cover’ version (in a reggae style) of the French National Anthem – something that we would (ironically) shrug at, but which caused a massive stink in France – and SG knew this.

        He may have been a prick, he may have produced songs that many people didn’t like much, but he wasn’t scared to branch out, change his style to suit himself or even (heaven forbid!) suit what was de rigeur – he was a POP star after all . I think we forget what the ‘pop’ bit means.

        I wish Pop artists nowadays had a fraction of the talent (and balls) that SG had and took risks musically that he did, regardless what he was like as a person.

        Unfortunately he will only be remembered for that one song (at least by people in the UK).

  4. I wouldn’t criticise anyone who doesn’t like his music – beyond the sixties pop I don’t like much of it myself. But he was truly gifted. And that went way beyond music. He understood and played with his public image in a way that only a very few stars have been able to do. And he took a succession of very attractive but mostly not very talented women and did the same thing with them. I suspect he saw them as cyphers. But I suspect he feared he was one too. I’ve seen Slogan recently, where he stars with Jane Birkin. He plays “himself” throughout – it’s absolutely his off-screen persona. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they cast him as an advertising wunderkind.

  5. Let me know when you’ve seen the film, Adam, and we’ll have a discussion about it. You clearly love and admire the man. Good. I watched a film about him, which you haven’t watched, and yet you feel confident enough to tell me that the opinion I have formed about him and his music, based upon my reaction to both, is in some way wrong, or ill-formed. The film is full of his songs, from all periods, and I didn’t like them. I admire your passion for him, but there must be ways of expressing this passion that don’t make you sound superior. Especially as you haven’t seen the film. If someone doesn’t like someone I do like, I do not think I am better than them. You may not either, but your comments certainly give that impression. If liking Gainsbourg’s music makes you feel better than those who don’t, enjoy that feeling.

  6. Oh, and I don’t much like Je t’aime either. But since it was his only hit in this country, it’s no surprise that he is judged by it in this country.

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