Please note that the following may contain a spoiler or two. If you have not seen the film, I recommend not to continue reading from here.
Don’t bother going to see my film, see Gainsbourg’s. That is a work of art.
–Francois Truffaut (read here)
Given that it was theatrically released in France one week before Small Change (see here and here), one could easily conclude (based on his above critical rave) that even celebrated French New Wave veteran Francois Truffaut (who helmed the latter) saw Je t’aime moi non plus as the greater masterpiece. Undoubtedly, any aspiring director would envy that kind of praise. Limited to his 5 feature-length films alone (one of which is a documentary), Je t’aime moi non plus served as cult musician Serge Gainsbourg’s directorial debut and to this day, it still stands out as a quintessential example of cinematic outsider art.
Driving through what looks like a desert area (a rural part of France maybe?), gay truckers Krassky (Joe Dallesandro) and Padovan (Hughes Quester) stop and enter a cafe where they are served by boyish waitress Johnny (Jane Birkin). The cafe’s owner Boris (Reinhard Kolldehoff) does not take too kindly to either Krassky or Padovan, but when the former falls for the lovesick Johnny, she can’t help but follow his lead. Nevertheless, their sexual relationship ends up enraging the already insecure Padovan, who goes so far as to almost kill Johnny during the climax.
On the one hand, Je t’aime moi non plus can arguably be seen as an inspired small-scaled collaborative effort. For starters, it is not only scored, but directed and written by noted enfant terrible Serge Gainsbourg. Since 1969, he had been in an open love relationship with the film’s lead actress Jane Birkin. In fact, the film’s title originated from a song Gainsbourg himself had written in 1967. Nevertheless, it only gained popularity (or notoriety) when he and Birkin sang it as a duet two years later.
While it is not unreasonable to expect Je t’aime moi non plus to work simply as a star vehicle for his then lover Jane Birkin, by doing so, we would be underestimating the already unpredictable Serge Gainsbourg’s talents as a director and writer. To complete Birkin, Gainsbourg wisely casted former Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro. Similar to how he approaches Birkin, Gainsbourg (through his camera) happily gazes upon Dallesandro’s body, as do us viewers. As to be expected from the most iconic male sex symbol of American underground cinema and gay subculture (read here and here), the charismatic Dallesandro not only oozes raw sexuality, but also a subtle kind of gentleness. Birkin typically exhibits beauty (even with cropped hair) and (through facial expressions alone) undeniable charm. She truly is to Dallesandro what Jean Seberg was to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Maybe it is just me, but If Birkin were an actress during the silent era, she would have been celebrated as a giant.
If Jane Birkin and Joe Dallesandro embody the heart of Je t’aime moi non plus, then director/writer Serge Gainsbourg represents the mind. Gainsbourg debatably has two faces. Whereas Johnny (Birkin) and Krassky (Dallesandro) personify the romantic within him, Padovan (Hughes Quester) arguably symbolizes his rebellious sensibilities. Once you combine the former with the latter, Je t’aime moi non plus finishes up as an erotically charged drama with an anti-erotic bent. After all, Gainsbourg did intend Je t’aime moi non plus as an anti-f**k song (read here and here). This can be clearly emphasized in it’s bittersweet ending (i.e. Krassky leaving Johnny). Johnny and Krassky’s sexual escapades are often titillating, occasionally hillarious, and at once, delightfully tasteless. Much of the film’s humor (as subtle as it is) comes in the form of a running gag involving Johnny and Krassky being kicked out of motels due to their loud lovemaking. Krassky’s attempts to subdue a hysterical Johnny (upon discovering that he is gay) could have easily been nothing more than a mean joke. On the surface, it is, but in the hands of the truly talented Gainsbourg, it becomes as weirdly irresistible as anything found in John Waters underground work. Considering the two were still romantically involved with each other at the time, a credible argument can be made that Je t’aime moi non plus serves as Gainsbourg’s love letter to Birkin.
As of 2022, I would not rank Small Change (despite my love for it) as the greatest of Francois Truffaut’s 1970’s work (that honor goes to the following year’s The Man Who Loved Women), so yes, I too nod in agreement with Truffaut in his sentiment that Je t’aime moi non plus is the superior film. Though Serge Gainsbourg may lack the impressive filmographies that have shaped the respective careers of Truffaut and fellow French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard as filmmakers, as a musician, he has more than proven to be every bit as accomplished. Given that I have only seen Je t’aime moi non plus, I can not say for sure whether Gainsbourg would have measured up to them. The one thing I can confirm is that when it comes to directorial debuts, Je t’aime moi non plus resembles the cinematic equivalent of a triple threat. As an erotic drama, Je t’aime moi non plus is simultaneously funny, outrageous and sexy.
* * * * (Out of * * * *) stars
Here is a youtube video link to the film’s French original theatrical trailer
Here is an Amazon link to Kino Lorber’s 2020 Blu-Ray/DVD release of the film
Last, but not least, here is a youtube video link to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s duet of Je t’aime moi non plus