Like Edith Piaf before him, the French singer Serge Gainsbourg would become famous amongst Anglophone audiences for a single song. 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' was originally written in 1968 as a duet between Gainsbourg and his then lover Brigitte Bardot - but it was the version which the gravel-voiced chanteur recorded the following year with his new wife Jane Birkin that would bring him both celebrity and notoriety abroad.
As a star of Blow-Up (1966) and Wonderwall (1968) and as the former wife of Bond composer John Barry, Birkin was a very English icon of the Swinging 1960s; but it was the song's French lyrics about loveless sexual abandon, coupled with the more universally understandable sounds of Birkin simulating orgasm, that would incur censure from the Vatican and a ban from the BBC. Naturally, amidst such scandal, chart success was inevitable.
Seven years after the music, the video. Gainsbourg's feature debut not only takes its title from his song, it also dramatises its themes of delayed physical pleasure and unrequited love. And in case the song's initial shock value had by now worn off, Gainsbourg introduces anal sex into the mix, with his own wife playing the repeatedly, painfully buggered heroine, her ecstatic moans from the original song here converted to yowls of submissive distress. In this film, love really does hurt.
Somewhere in America's sparsely populated centre, Krassky (Dallesandro) and his gay lover Padovan (Quester) are trash collectors who drive their dump truck from contract to contract. One morning they stop at an isolated diner, where 'Krass' is immediately drawn to the arse in tight jeans behind the counter. Even after he has realised that it belongs not to a young man, but to the gamine 'Johnny' (Birkin), he remains attracted to her, despite his loathing of the female sex; and the lonely waitress too feels a spark of desire, despite warnings from her flatulent boss Boris (Kolldehoff) that Krassky is a "poof" and a "pervert".
So begins a mismatched love affair whose consummation will be repeatedly delayed, as Krassky's preferred mode of intercourse generates enough agonised screams from Johnny to see the couple kicked out of one motel room after another. Meanwhile the insanely jealous Padovan waits on the sidelines for an opportunity to ride the open road once again with his garbage man.
Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus ought to be pure trash. After all, it stars Joe Dallesandro, best known for his long association with filmmaker Paul Morrissey in such trash classics as Flesh (1968), Heat (1972) and of course Trash (1970). It has an unhealthy obsession with bodily functions and human waste. Much of its plot revolves around the mechanics of a sex act normally deemed far too transgressive for non-hardcore cinema (before Gainsbourg's film, only Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris and Pasolini's Salo had attempted to put sodomy in the arthouse); and, as if to underscore the film's generic roots, several scenes are set around piles of stinking trash at a dump.
Yet from such 'crass' materials Gainsbourg has fashioned an odd gem of a film - a bleak, nihilistic poem about the loneliness of longing that somehow still elevates itself to unexpected romantic heights. Here everything and everyone is reduced to the body, here misanthropy and violence are barely suppressed - but still, between the most unlikely of couples and in the most unlikely of settings (to wit, the back of a garbage truck), for a fleeting moment a rare love is shared. It is all at once hideously ugly and sublimely beautiful - but such contradictions are of a piece with a film so overtly concerned with the mismatched nature of unions (as the title says, "I love you - me neither").
Similarly mismatched is Gainsbourg's love affair with Americana. The spoken language of Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus may be French, and the motifs (amour fou, existential angst, the love triangle) may be recognisably Gallic, but the setting is a nostalgic America of the 1950s. As captured by cinematographer Willy Kurant, the film's barren vistas have all the iconic quality, not to mention the timeless furnishings of an Edward Hopper painting, while Padovan, with his black leather jacket and sullen bellicosity, seems to have stepped right off the set of Rebel Without A Cause.
Still, Gainsbourg's homage to America is also a wilful corruption of America's supposed innocence. Here every character seems vile or perverted, every line resonates with scatological innuendo, and every landscape is made to reek of desire, detritus and decay. It is a vision of the US that has been eroticised, sullied and queered - as though the only way Gainsbourg can express his love for America is to take it painfully from behind.