Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Brief Guide To The Cinematic Exploits of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Each year the remarkable recording legacy of both Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin becomes more and more revered and known. I have been grateful to see this happening because when I first began to get into their music about twelve years ago it was virtually impossible to even find a cd by either one in even the best record shops.
While I am excited to see their music becoming more recognized I have been frustrated by the lack of attention the films they made together have garnered. Their best work together on screen for the most part remains hard to see so I thought I would put together a little mini guide to their cinematic legacy. I have been able to collect the majority of their films in the past decade and I highly recommend any of the below to existing fans of their recordings or to European film fans in general. Even when some of these films faltered their extraordinary chemistry always burned bright.
Serge Gainsbourg made his first film with none other than Brigitte Bardot in 1959's COME DANCE WITH ME. He would continue to make films throughout the 1960's before appearing in the film CHEMINS DE KATMANDOU in 1969. I have not seen this very obscure film but it appears to be the first film that Serge and Jane appeared in together. Jane made it immediately after her iconic part in 1968's WONDERWALL opposite Jack MacGowran.
1969 was of course a huge year for Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin as it marked the release of their legendary single JE T'AIME...MOI NON PLUS which caused a worldwide scandal and became an international smash. The song had originally been performed with Bardot who decided she didn't want the single released. The song's success, the release of their first album together and the start of their collaborative film work would all mark the beginning of one of the most legendary couples in popular culture.
Pierre Grimblat's SLOGAN was released in late 1969 to solid business in France and it remains a pop culture curiosity that featured an early screenwriting credit from Melvin Van Peebles and an astonishing score by Gainsbourg himself. It is often said of this film that you can literally watch Jane and Serge falling in love with each other in front of the camera. SLOGAN is an extremely underrated fun film that would greatly benefit from a legitimate dvd release.
1970 would see the release of one of the great films in both Serge and Jane's career, the overwhelmingly intense CANNABIS (FRENCH INTRIGUE). This off the hook Pierre Koralnik film is among the most gritty and violently stylized French crime films of the early 70s. Gainsbourg again contributes a breathtaking soundtrack and also turns in one of his best performances as the exhausted gangster snowballing to inevitable doom. Jane has never been lovelier and does great work here as the girl who mistakenly gets involved in Serge's world. This brutal film features great cinematography by Willy Kurant who would travel with Pink Floyd shortly after to shoot LIVE AT POMPEI and sharp editing by Godard collaborator Francoise Collin. CANNABIS is particularly effective during the very intimate love scenes between Serge and Jane and a screaming (literally) finale that is very hard to shake. Add on some of the coolest and most outlandish Wardrobe choices ever and you've got one of the great lost films of the early seventies.
Another film I have unfortunately not seen is 1971's RAGE OF WAR. I get the impression, from the few things I have read about this Milan Kosovac film, that this is among the more serious of the Birkin-Gainsbourg films. I hope to see a copy someday.
The very odd period piece ROMANCE OF A HORSETHIEF was next and this film featured Jane and Serge working with everyone from Yul Brynner to Eli Wallach. This 1971 international co-production benefits from a good cast but it remains one of their most forgettable films together.
1971 would prove to be the watershed year for the two with the release of Gainsbourg's recorded masterpiece THE BALLAD OF MELODY NELSON. Jean-Christophe Averty would direct a legendary French tv program based on the lp starring Jane that same year. This 30 minuted program, available on the indispensable Serge Gainsbourg D'AUTRES NOUVELLES DES ETOILES box set, is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen; a surreal pop fantasy that manages to compliment and transcend one of the most remarkable of all albums.
1973 would see the release of underrated Italian master Antonio Margheriti's SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CATS EYE. This strange and pretty haunting giallo benefited greatly a couple of years ago with a dvd release highlighting its proper aspect ratio. After years of watching the old full frame pan and scan tape seeing it on disc was a real eye opener. It's a fine film with the beautiful Birkin giving a solid performance and Serge is featured in a small role as a police detective.
A very obscure tv production followed in 1974 before Serge and Jane embarked on what would turn out to be their most controversial production, JE T'AIME MOI NON PLUS.
Named after their legendary single JE T'AIME would be written, scored and directed by Serge and would feature Jane co-starring with Joe Dallesandro and a young Gerard Depardieu. This crude, haunting and frankly brilliant film would cause much controversy upon initial release and was not a critical or popular success. Gainsbourg took the backlash to his opus hard and it can be said that he never again reached the heights of this period again. The limited availability of this important final screen collaboration between Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg is extremely frustrating.
Gainsbourg's film appearances after the failure of JE T'AIME were few and far between. His drinking and personal demons became more and more difficult to himself and the people around him to deal with and he would split from Jane in the late seventies.
Jane Birkin has become of course one of the world's most respected actresses and continues to deliver fine performances each year. Her recording career is also at it's strongest since her time in the seventies with her great RENDEZ VOUS and FICTIONS albums selling well and getting much acclaim.
Serge Gainsbourg would die in 1991 shortly after finishing his film STAN THE FLASHER with Elodie Bouchez. His last notable screen appearance would not be opposite Jane Birkin but instead their lovely and talented daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in the strange but effective CHARLOTTE FOREVER.
Currently only SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CATS EYE is readily available on American DVD. Grey market copies of some of the above films are available from certain companies and a handful of import discs also pop occasionally.
Cinema has given us a lot of real life couples on the screen but few shown as bright or burned as hard as Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Their screen legacy is a sublime and important one.

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