Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most distinctive artists of his era, and to him, being conventional was the greatest sin of all. He didn’t just inhabit art, his life was art, and everything he did, from eating to flocculating, was artful in its resolve and resolution. He didn’t need to be dangerous to be truthful, but the truth was in itself, an act of dangerous pursuit, so it captivated him to go in search of it.
“I really came into my own with Serge because he did nothing all day long but think of jolly things to do with me,” girlfriend and collaborator Jane Birkin recalled. “So I was extremely happy. He was as jealous as I was. And although now people consider him as really quite a genius in France, which indeed he was, he was never a boring genius. He never said: ‘Well, now I’m going to go up to work.’ I never saw him work. No, when I did rather bad films, he had a tendency of writing his best stuff because he was pissed off that I was not there.”
Gainsbourg was compelled to replicate the wonder from the ordinary, extracting the extraordinary from the everyday. And when he was struck down by a heart attack, he demanded that he be covered in an extremely valuable Hermès blanket, feeling that the blankets at the hospital were too uncomfortable for him.
He was 45, not exactly young, but not old enough to suffer from a heart attack. But the years of constant cigarette smoking had caught up with him by 1973, and he was forced to go to the hospital.
No matter the comforts, the blankets, the camaraderie and the characters that surrounded him in the hospitals, the French artist ached to return to the spotlight again, so he called for a press conference. During that time, he claimed he would reduce the risk of a second heart attack by “increasing his intake of alcohol and cigarettes”. Whether or not he was sincere in his intentions is bound to be speculative. Still, he was known for his shock tactics, and the artist was intelligent enough to recognise the incendiary quality of his lyrics.
It was later revealed that the artist had been smoking cigarettes he had brought into the hospital. The artist had stuffed his pill bottles with cigarette butts, much to the embarrassment of the nurses and hospital staff. They likely thought he would be dead by the end of the decade, but Gainsbourg – who enjoyed defying conventional norms and expectations -lived until 1991, where he was hailed as a contemporary Baudelaire.
During his life, he was seen as a vagabond, a rascal, even a charlatan, as his motives and moves defied everyday expectations. His stint in the hospital was a telling reminder that no one, not even someone as far-reaching as Gainsbourg, is infallible, which might explain why he returned to his art with an added desire to tackle the establishment through a collection of crisp, kaleidoscopic portraits that decreed that the challenges of the world were not the changes humans were capable of.
He directed Je t’aime moi non plus, which starred Jane Birkin as a boyish-looking character who engages in a series of bawdy, bucolic silhouettes that evoked the carnal energy of the gay community. It was scintillating, cerebral, shimmering and sensual, sensing that the pleasures of the body could be found through another’s a guiding hand.
What the film held was ballast, braggadocio and bullishness, as the strident, shimmering portraits culminated into one dangerous whole. It wasn’t escapist cinema and will likely turn off modern-day viewers hoping for a pleasant night in. Still, the more liberal-minded, the film proved a spiritual documentary that shows the sexual liberation, carnal agency and unvarnished French spirit at every turn. Director Francois Truffaut adored the work, and the film spearheaded a new sparkily charged movement in 1970s cinema.
Gainsbourg’s work was raw, rollicking, ripe with possibility, but it was also accessible, never patronising to the uneducated classes that sought out his work. It wasn’t the work of a cultural cornerstone but a voice of the under-classed seeking to reach out and change his perspective of the world.
Gainsbourg died in 1991 and was buried in the Jewish section of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. In many ways, his life is more prescient in death than it was in life, bringing the fusion and confusion of a world spent spinning into a sphere of great change. His life’s mottos were set to the beats that had led him into a hospital bed, but even at a point of great peril, he was determined to continue his work in a manner that appeased both his soul and continued his life’s journey. He was the ultimate avant-gardist and could conjure moments of extraordinary beauty from the confines of a hospital bed.