'Obviously narration is only an act of memory; on the other hand, it holds nothing in reserve for future use; it merely derives a little pleasure from the states of dread by trying to formulate them as aptly as possible;from enjoyment of horror it produces enjoyment of memory.' Peter Handke (1)
'In the 1930s Warner Brothers developed a serious line in earnest, inspirational films celebrating great scientists, liberators and social benefactors, usually played by Edward G Robinson or Paul Muni, dedicated to Longfellow's lines in his "A Psalm of Life": "Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time." But Variety's contemptuous neologism "biopic" stuck, and biography has never had much standing in the cinema – unlike the literary world where, under the larger rubric of "life writing", it's a serious matter both to practise and study.' Philip French (2)
Joann Star's 2010 biopic Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) followed recent rock star narratives (Ian Curtis, Edith Piaf, Brian Jones, Peter Sellars, Bob Dylan) that eschew the Oscar-sweeping epic treatment of Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia and settle for something more impressionistic or cheeky. Gainsbourg captures the nonchalant arc of its subject's life, is enjoyably raucous and thoroughly entertaining, but somehow it still leaves the viewer knowing less about the man that President Mitterand described, upon Gainsbourg's death in 1991, as somoeone who 'through his love for the language and his musical genius, lifted the song to the level of an art.'
The real truth is in fiction, of course. At the time of his death, Gainsbourg was filming a rollicking tale of a lady-killing singer. Jean Antoine's Jacky was fashioned from tall stories, and yet it can inevitably be read as a biopic of the star, whose own episodic life (with great highlights and a fair amount of mediocrity) serves as a bold confirmation of the print-the-myth ethos. After his death, the production continued without Gainsbourg, leaving a jumpy narrative that makes perfect nonsense, and thus his turn as the titular ungallant gallavanter is a bold sign-off, a self-penned eulogy, and somewhere between brilliant and disappointment.
Gainsbourg's existence is one that comes to us framed as a series of anecdotes (smoking in hospital post-heart attack, insulting American singer on television, being banned by the BBC for being too sexy, et cetera, et cetera), all fully-formed squares in a mythological tapestry, their veracity unimportant, their greater truth illustrative of something we admire: a man living to the edge of his capacities, world be damned. So too, Jacky's life is potted and episodic, every step a deviation from the road. The character is lifted from the Jacques Brel song of the same name (the galloping chanson that begins with the careering lines: 'And if one day I should become/A singer with a Spanish bum/Who sings for women of great virtue/I'd sing to them with a guitar/I borrowed from a coffee bar/ Well, what you don't know doesn't hurt you'), the one that treats its subject like a dreamy mystic, a pickpocket pragmatist, an ambitious romantic; the man who outdrank the Roman army, outsang Frank Sinatra and outfenced (Biblically speaking) Casanova, or so he says.
There is Gainsbourg, his face like a literary allusion, weighty and important as he can muster, knowing it is all a joke. His frequent accomplices (for he needs an audience, a victim, a stooge, someone to verify and spin) are excited by him. He is calmly crumpled in the residue of party after party, the veneer of noise on everything about him, but never on him; his eyes are hollows never to be full. In exchanges with another musician in a bar, we see a riff on Mae West cheek, making rich women buy them drinks so they can spill them on the suits of husbands. They step outside into the cool Marseille night, drunker than all hell, fighting their memories to put a face to a name: Steven Angiers, wasn't he at your college? A man you knocked out in a streetfight or prizefight? The man your mother left your father for? Or someone else?
But later, after many deviations, there is a Steven Angiers, and it is Jacky himself, overseas and in pseudonym, a man with no reason to live other than to prove that he can. Exposed to the winds, Jacky takes in Paris, Tangiers (because it rhymes with 'Angiers'), Bogota and Prague, actively looking for his lottery to throw a ticket towards. This snakes and ladders progress flicks the edges of destitute, and contains champion moments of alcoholic logic bereft of boozy remorse. 'I am Jacky, and I have a full compliment of fingers and toes,' is the repeated line to the changing faces in changing fauna, as if in a life of no clear path, such simple facts can stand as a humble gospel.
In the final scene, when Jacky takes the microphone in an empty bar, he doesn't know what his next song will be, and doesn't seem to care. (3) Absolute confusion looking very much like absolute bliss, and that is as it should be.
Jacky Directed by Jean Antoine Produced by Alain Terzian Written by Jean Antoine, Serge Gainsbourg Starring Serge Gainsbourg, Christian Clavier, Sabine Azema Strand Releasing Release Date UK/US: Jan 1993 126 mins Tagline: 'Too Many Pretty Singers, Not Enough Pretty Songs'
1. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
2. The Observer, August 2010.
3. The Gainsbourg-penned and performed songs 'Le Botox', 'Amour Cruise' and 'Mon Amant Avant-Dernier' appear in the film. The latter includes a verse sung in French, and then repeated in English:
You're my penultimate loverThe one before the one before the end
After you my energies will be sucked through the vacuum
By some peachy nymphet in a gloomy backroom
And I'll expire there sweating on the Indian rug
While she calls in the others to watch me slip down
To the spiteful netherworlds, where feeling so smug
I'll buy a drink for the jailer in exchange for a favour
A call to my love whose love never wavered
I'll tell her that down here it really is hell
O hello I'll be here a while , alas, oh well
Sort out her Lucifiction from her Lucifacts
Some of the boys have got on the escape committee
We know it's impossible, no room for self pity.