Serge Gainsbourg is known the world over as a great, influential musician and songwriter (as well as a controversial provocateur). But, in addition to quite a bit of acting work, he also slipped into the director’s chair more than a handful of times. Je t’aime moi non plus is the first of those and, given Gainsbourg’s mainline career, it’s no wonder that his dreamy, loungy score is often better than his less practiced efforts behind the camera.
Joe Dallesandro and Hugues Quester are Krassky and Padovan, a gay couple who drive a dump truck, picking up and dropping off garbage and donations in rural France. When they meet a bartender at a roadside shack–a young woman nicknamed Johnny (Jane Birkin) for her tomboyish appearance–Krassky leaves the immature Padovan and takes up a romance with her. Johnny, more accustomed to mocking and abuse than sex and positive attention, falls hard. But the taciturn and distant Krassky may not be so enamored. Padovan is always waiting in the wings.
On the one hand, Gainsbourg makes the predictable rookie director move of conspicuously playing with the camera; the frame cants and swerves in ways liable to produce motion sickness. On the other hand, some of these shots are actually pretty cool, like the extreme low angle one of Krassky looking up at the sky.
Outside of the core three, there are only two other characters of real consequence. There’s Boris (Reinhard Kolldehoff), Johnny’s grotesque boss. And then there’s the unnamed loner played by Gérard Depardieu, another gay man who lives nearby and occasionally appears out of nowhere accompanied by a horse.
Though young Depardieu’s animal magnetism cannot be denied, it’s Birkin who is Je t’aime moi non plus‘ object of sexual fascination. Her beautiful and androgynous body is the perfect vehicle for Gainsbourg’s uncomfortable and problematic ideas about gender and attraction. The Krassky we meet in the opening sequence is not just a gay man but a boldly, confrontationally out one; he and Padovan gleefully fuck with the homophobic yokels. Once they meet Johnny, though, Krassky is immediately attracted to her. While the film illustrates the difference between gender and gender performance, it also implies that Krassky’s homosexuality is based purely on the latter. While Gainsbourg does seem to assume that everyone is at least a little bisexual (probably not too far from the truth), the Krassky/Johnny dynamic is like concluding that straight women would naturally be attracted to butch lesbians.
If you think that’s juvenile, just wait till you get to Gainsbourg’s ideas about anal sex. It’s the only way Krassky will have sex with Johnny and she only allows it because she loves him, not because she enjoys it. The implication that anal sex is the sole provenance of gay men is embarrassingly immature. But Johnny’s coital suffering is to be expected of a movie as perversely devoted to ugliness as this one. It opens with a dead bird splattering on a windshield and juxtaposes a depressingly unsexy small town striptease contest with an excessively violent roller derby. I’d call it a balance of pain and pleasure but Je t’aime moi non plus doesn’t seem want us to actually enjoy any of it.