Gainsbourg, a life lived in revenge for the yellow star
A new ﬁlm shows how the French rebel songwriter was driven by the persecution he suffered in Nazi-occupied Paris
Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) plays for Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) in the new biopic of the maverick French songwriter.
For most Jews, the yellow star that thousands were forced to wear by the Nazis would not be the most obvious choice of subject matter for a pop song. But then the French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg was never really your average Jew.
Most famous, or perhaps that should be infamous, for the steamy 1960s hit, Je t'aime (moi non plus), in which he duetted with his long-time lover and muse, the actress Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg was no stranger to notoriety. The sharp-suited, Gitane-smoking anti-hero, now revered as the creator of hits for singers Juliette Gréco and Françoise Hardy, as well as Birkin and Brigitte Bardot (with whom he famously conducted a lengthy and public affair), was also a bon viveur and Don Juan of epic proportions.
"For me provocation is oxygen," he once said, but rather than stemming from an anarchic sense of fun, Gainsbourg's love of thumbing his nose at the establishment owed much more to his experiences as a Jewish child, growing up in the early 1940s in Nazi-occupied France.
As can be seen in Gainsbourg, the stylish, expressionistic French biopic released this week, the 14-year-old Lucien Ginsburg - as he was then known - was suddenly required to wear the yellow star, despite the fact that his Russian immigrant parents had built an entirely assimilated French life, never attended synagogue and did not live in Paris' Jewish neighbourhood. The humiliation and seeming irrationality of the experience was to have a profound impact on the boy.
"Usually you become a Jew because of your rabbi or your parents," says Joann Sfar, Gainsbourg's 38-year-old French director, "but he became a Jew because of the French police, so this is very strange. He was the typical Parisian boy - he didn't know anything about prayers or Hebrew. His parents felt that France was a modern country and full of the humanism of the 18th century and so on. Then the police gives them a yellow star. Seen from a child's eye, it's not a tragedy, just an absurdity."
Later on in life, Gainsbourg would not only write a song called Yellow Star, but once the success of Je t'aime and a string of other international hits had made him a wealthy man, he commissioned a platinum copy of the yellow star from royal jewellers Cartier. On the one hand it was perhaps a type of exorcism but also maybe an acknowledgement of how much the star continued to define him, in his own mind at least.
BORN: Lucien Ginsburg, Paris, 1928, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants
CAREER: Songwriter of many hits in 60s and 70s, including, Je t’aime (moi non plus). Directed four films
PERSONAL LIFE: Famous for an affair with Brigitte Bardot and long relationship with Jane Birkin. Married twice, four children, including singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg with long-time lover Jane Birkin
As a young teenager, the anti-Jewish propaganda and caricatures he saw on the streets and the similarities he felt they displayed with his own looks - in particular his prominent nose - affected him deeply.
"He found himself ugly," continues Sfar, "and he hated himself, even though he always had success with women. It comes from his inner image of himself and he built this image during the Second World War, when even his friends from school would say: 'The poor Lucien - he looks exactly like the caricature we saw in the street.' And when the teacher sees him in school in Paris, he says: 'It stinks like piss around here', and then he has to leave the school. It builds the character."
In Gainsbourg, the appearance of these propaganda images is accompanied by a surprisingly effective, animated character - an exaggerated, hand-drawn version of Gainsbourg himself, complete with caricatured nose and ears, who reappears throughout the film as the voice of Gainsbourg's mischievous alter-ego. This whimsical aspect of the film - and its striking, flying-through-the-air, Chagall-like, animated title sequence, lifts it beyond the usual straight biopic and reflects the director Sfar's own background as a comic-book artist. In France he is well-known for his best-selling series of books, The Rabbi's Cat, and he acknowledges the influence of his own Jewish background - he is the son of an Algerian father and a Ukranian mother, and also the influence of Chagall in particular.
"This is something you find in each of my drawings and this is very Russian, I guess," Sfar explains. "It has always been a huge influence on me because those guys pretend to be naive but they are nothing like naive - they just choose to show the world that way."
The Gainsbourgs survived the German occupation by fleeing to Limoges in France's "free zone" under false papers as the family Guimbard. The young Lucien was enrolled at a country school where his teacher told him to hide in the woods with an axe whenever the Nazis conducted a search of the building. If anyone should ask, he was to say he was the woodcutter's son.
Before the war, the young Lucien had begun to learn classical piano at the insistence of his father - a pianist in the smoky bars and clubs of Montmartre - and once the war was over, he began to find work as a musician himself. His first regular job however, as Gainsbourg portrays, was teaching music at a suburban Jewish school for the children of deportees murdered in the camps. It was during this period that he began to write songs.
The film follows him through his transformation from cabaret pianist to hit songwriting star through his partnership with sultry chanteuse Juliette Gréco, and his affair with Bardot as well as his relationship with Birkin and subsequent life until his death in 1991.
We also see a career full of subversion, from the hits he wrote for the French 1960s teenage singing sensation, France Gall, heavily laced with sexual double-entendres, to his notorious reggae version of the French national anthem which caused a national outcry in his home country when it was released.
But for Gainsbourg, provocation, ridicule and subversion were his ways of rebelling against a society which he felt - in his youth at least - had rejected him, and whose laws and precepts he found senseless and unjust. Indeed, his affair with Bardot - portrayed with startling visual accuracy in the film by model and actress Laetitia Casta - could arguably be seen as the supreme act of vindication: the social outcast winning over the most desired woman in France, if not the world. A lifetime of revenge for the yellow star he had never entirely lost.
'Gainsbourg' is released nationwide today