When I was 13, I became obsessed with everything French, which led me to take 3 1/2 years of high school French instead of the far more practical Spanish. I vowed to visit Paris one day, which I did for the first time in 1979 with my Dutch boyfriend, who became my husband and then ex-husband. I did not snag that suave French lover as I dreamed of, but alas I was sort of fulfilling my dream and much sooner than anticipated. Well, the wind blew out of my sails pretty quickly when Parisians mocked my ridiculous American accent and pretty pathetic command of their language. While I could read and understand French fairly well, in retrospect, the French taught in my high school was totally impractical when confronted with the real thing. While Paris was beautiful and I certainly enjoyed Normandy and the Loire Valley, somehow my French obsession waned with the rudeness encountered in those Parisian cafes and bistros.
My Francophile obsession was replaced with a Dutch obsession, and when I learned een beetje Nederlands while living in Rotterdam in the early 1980s, my paltry knowledge of French dissipated. Still, a love of the European remains, and I recently rediscovered that je ne sais quoi and what attracted me to everything French decades ago.
I discovered Serge Gainsbourg by chance when I saw his and Jane Birkin’s ultra-talented daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in 21 Grams, The Science of Sleep, and I’m Not There. Serge was not just a tortured French bad boy, as evidenced in his 1986 alcohol-fueled Gitanes-puffing televised exchange with Whitney Houston, but a brilliant singer/songwriter/stylist with an undeniable je ne sais quoi. And then I became obsessed with Jane Birkin, or should I say the model-gorgeous, youthful Jane Birkin, circa 1960s-1970s. I devoured everything I could find about this iconic couple and uncovered some gems and a few duds along my path of discovery. I didn’t care much for Jane Birkin’s solo singing voice, although she has improved over the years. In any case, this breathiness seems to be the thing with many French chanteuses, including Carla Bruni, whom I like better as a chanteuse. And although Carla Bruni is Italian-born, she very much possesses that je ne sais quoi which has rubbed off to some degree on Nicolas Sarkozy and I am certain will be inherited by their baby.
Serge was a highly creative artiste who produced a phenomenal, richly varied array of songs – a good introduction to his work can be found on these two CDs – Monsieur Gainsbourg – The Originals or Serge Gainsbourg – Initials SG. And I recommend Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes for those that wish to delve into his life in more detail. As for Serge and Jane, much has been written about their stormy relationship. Since parting ways with Serge, Jane has enjoyed a long and stellar acting and singing career, not to mention her highly regarded humanitarian work in more recent years.
No doubt Serge possessed quite a je ne sais quoi, given that his previous equally gorgeous lover was Brigitte Bardot, with whom he recorded the iconic Bonnie and Clyde and the first rendition of the controversial Je T’aime which he later recorded commercially with Jane, creating quite a fervor. The video makes me sad because they were so young and glamorous and that fades with death and the passage of time. They made a rather fluffy, light film together called Slogan, but if you want to see a gem of a film with Jane in a supporting role, I highly recommend the brilliant La Belle Noiseuse, starring one of my favorite French actresses, Emmanuelle Beart.
Serge and Jane have been in the news lately on two counts. First, at long last, the biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life starring the late Lucy Gordon as Jane was released on a very limited basis in the US. I am hoping that Netflix eventually offers this, because I highly doubt this will be distributed on a widespread basis. And second, Scarlett Johansson has recorded a new version of Bonnie and Clyde with Serge’s son Lulu Gainsbourg. Scarlett definitely has that Bardot look going for her, but she is a far better actress. And she proves that you don’t have to be French to have that je ne sais quoi – she has it in spades – just ask Woody Allen.