Have you ever seen a scene in a movie that grabbed your attention and won’t let go? A scene that you’re still thinking about weeks, even months later? A clip from the film Gainsbourg: Vie Héroique is one of my favorite movie clips ever. This is a biopic – of sorts – of singer/songwriter/epic smoker/lover of belles femmes Serge Gainsbourg, who more than 20 years after his death is still famed for his copious smoking and his astonishing ability to pull some of France’s most beautiful women, in spite of not exactly being blessed in the looks department. The scene was so unexpected, so stunning, that it made me sit up and think ‘Whoa!’ – and I can’t recall the last time a movie did that to me.
The clip begins about 67 minutes into the movie, with Gainsbourg and one of his neighbors in the corridor of his apartment block. The neighbor has knocked on Gainsbourg’s door, clearly having had to screw up his courage to confront the other man. He complains about the noise that has been coming from Gainsbourg’s flat; it seems that Gainsbourg entertains a lot of female guests and the neighbor can hear what’s going on. He complains ‘This isn’t a brothel!’ We can only imagine what kind of activities are going on to upset him. Gainsbourg soon tires of the little man and his complaints, and turns away to go back into his apartment. Both men are startled by an imperious ‘Serge!’ coming from further down the corridor. It’s the voice of a woman. We first see her legs, clad in long leather thigh-high boots, then her face in shadow. Gradually it becomes clear who the woman is. It’s Brigitte Bardot! She strides along the corridor until she reaches her target: Gainsbourg. She kisses him, and they head into his apartment; it’s pretty damn obvious what she’s here for! The neighbor is left out there, holding the leash of Bardot’s dog, like a servant. He’s nothing more than a coat hook, a piece of human furniture. He’s an object, surplus to requirements; he’s served his purpose and never appears in the film again.
The cinematography of the clip is stunning. It’s beautifully framed and shot, from the moment Bardot’s legs appear, reflected in the polished floor, and continuing with her slinking along the corridor. And although you may not notice it at first, this clip is absolutely reeking with fetish imagery. Some of it is obvious, such as the thigh-high leather boots that Bardot is wearing, but much of it is there underneath the surface. Perhaps it took a Francophile deviant like me to tease it out.
Bardot is widely considered to have been one of the most beautiful women ever. In this clip she is represented as at the height of her beauty; she is in her 30s by this point, so combines beauty with the maturity of a woman who knows she is desirable and takes it for granted. She is wearing a rather fetishy outfit: a leopard-print coat, hot pants and thigh-high leather boots. Yet she has very little flesh on view – only a sliver of thigh between the boots and the hot pants, as if pointing the way. It’s the perfect example of how less is more. Everything about her is vital, alive, inviting. Her dog even looks like her, all silky long blonde hair. The perfect accessory!
Bardot is feline, all tousled blond hair, come-to-bed eyes, and pouting lips. She has the dog firmly under her control, pulling him into line when he strays. The dog is like the neighbor. Both can only meekly obey and do as she demands. She hands the dog to the neighbor assuming that he will do as she bids and mind the dog for her. Which he does – he’s so mesmerized that he just stands there in the corridor holding the leash. A bland little man in a drab corridor, who will never be able to pull a woman like Bardot. I imagine him still standing there when Bardot emerges the next day, still holding the leash ready to hand it back to her. He’s an object, and has no purpose other than to be useful in whatever small way he can. And he’s certainly no use when it comes to sex – except for being the anti-Serge.
One of the things that struck me about this scene was the music. It’s an instrumental version of Initials B.B, a song Gainsbourg wrote when his affair with Bardot ended. The music begins after we hear her call ‘Serge!’ It’s a lush arrangement of strings and brass, and continues throughout the scene, as Bardot sashays along the corridor. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Bardot is accompanied by music written for (or about) her everywhere she goes. Only one of France’s greatest sex goddesses could turn a drab corridor into her own personal catwalk.
The figure of the neighbor is also interesting in the setting of this clip. Presumably it’s not based on any actual event; a complaint about noise isn’t the kind of thing that makes for interesting cinema. The clip seems to be about introducing Bardot into the narrative, and allowing her to make a rather spectacular entrance. But the neighbor also serves as a foil to Gainsbourg and his embrace of the sexually-liberated Sixties. This anonymous neighbor – we have no idea what he’s called – provides a contrast to the highly sexual Gainsbourg. They come from different worlds, one the louche libertine with a string of beautiful lovers, the other a repressed, bespectacled, balding cardigan-wearer who only wants a quiet life.
It seems no coincidence that the man chosen to play the neighbor is shorter than both Gainsbourg and Bardot. His apartment is also opposite Gainsbourg’s, rather than next to it – they are complete opposites in every way. Gainsbourg has his shirt loose and unbuttoned, the cuffs are unfastened, the ever-present cigarette in his hand. The neighbor’s shirt is buttoned right up to the neck, his clothing beige and boring, just like him. He’s drab, dull and repressed. Bardot and Gainsbourg represent the liberated atmosphere of the decade, which is sweeping away the old, dull, bourgeois France.
Another striking fetish aspect of this clip is the Alpha male and the submissive male. Gainsbourg has ‘it’; the neighbor never will. Gainsbourg is certainly no beauty; indeed the film represents his self-consciousness about his looks by using a cartoonish figure, his alter-ego Gainsbarre. Yet he has something that attracts women in droves (his affairs were legendary). Bardot’s affair with Gainsbourg is also well known; he originally recorded the infamous Je t’aime … moi non plus with her, but Bardot begged him not to release it as her husband objected to the highly sexual nature of the recording (and presumably, to being reminded that his wife had been nobbing Gainsbourg). Gainsbourg clearly enjoys life to the max, the little man looks like he doesn’t know what fun is. There’s also something of the cuckold figure about the neighbor; he’s on the outside while the alpha pair enjoy each other in bed. He can never aspire to such an experience and can only imagine what it would be like. Indeed, there is an element of implied voyeurism. Before Bardot’s entrance, the neighbor complains that he can hear everything that goes on in the apartment – Gainsbourg clearly makes a habit of having frequent and very loud sex. Gainsbourg’s snide response is to ask if he’s been listening. There’s no evidence that he has been doing so, but Gainsbourg’s sarcastic suggestion serves two purposes: to remind him who’s in charge, and also reinforce that Gainsbourg is having the fun he can only dream about.
Gainsbourg is being superficially polite when he says ‘Excuse me’ to the neighbor. He’s dismissing the man and reinforcing his position of superiority. By placing an arm around Bardot’s shoulders and ushering her into his apartment, he’s taking ownership, as much as anyone can own a wild animal like Bardot. Gainsbourg can’t resist showing off; he gives a sideways triumphant smirk towards the neighbor after Bardot kisses him. Look at me! he’s saying. He accepts Bardot’s kiss as his right. Bardot and Gainsbourg are predators. They know what they want and they always get it. The neighbor and the dog, by contrast, are pets. They do as they’re told. When Bardot orders the man to look after her dog, she’s training him as she would train an animal. You get the impression that if she ordered him to crawl on the floor and bark, he’d do exactly as he was told.
Bardot is no less Alpha than her lover. As she hands over her dog, she doesn’t even break her stride, but continues to head straight for her target: Gainsbourg. This woman has one thing on her mind and she’s going to get it. Even the Alpha male can be prey to a woman like Brigitte Bardot, although a very willing one. And he’s certainly no victim, even though in later scenes he’s clearly affected by the end of the affair. Indeed, it was probably doomed to fail, with two such strong personalities, even if Bardot didn’t have an inconvenient husband hanging around.
The neighbor does a double-take when he realises who it is, whereas Gainsbourg, after initially being startled by the voice calling his name, just leans back to enjoy the view. The little man can’t believe it. Brigitte Bardot! In his building, right in front of him! She even spoke to him! He’s forgotten all about his complaint, as he can’t believe his luck at coming so close to France’s major cinematic star. Gainsbourg, on the other hand, takes it as his due. Why wouldn’t Brigitte Bardot come to visit? She’s not the first woman who’s fallen for him, and she sure as hell won’t be the last. Yes, he is taken by surprise by Bardot’s unexpected arrival. She’s going to have that effect on anyone. But he soon recovers; once he realises who it is he settles back to enjoy the view and the anticipation.
Gainsbourg wastes no time dismissing the neighbor, while at the same time indicating what is about to happen with just a couple of words: ‘Excusez-nous’ (excuse us). Not ‘Excuse me’ – he’s making it very plain that he and Bardot are a couple. The man and the dog are left in the corridor, surplus to requirements. He and the audience are shut out. It’s a private show, and voyeurs are not required (the next scene is Bardot, clad in one of Gainsbourg’s shirts, rehearsing a song with him; you don’t see any scenes of them actually doing the deed).
The final word in this scene comes from the dog who, standing meekly with the neighbor, whines as if to say ‘Get used to it – I have!’ He knows who’s boss.