Sex Shop was a French film that playfully examined the effects of the sexual revolution on the bourgeoisie by telling the story of a milquetoast merchant who converted his bookstore into a sex shop, thereby solving his financial woes and spicing things up with his wife in the bargain. The merchant was a homely man with a disproportionately beautiful wife—and this was a full 30 years before Judd Apatow’s “lovable schlub gets the prom queen” storyline came to dominate American comedy, so director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring) gets credit for being influential.
Who better to sing the theme song than Serge Gainsbourg? He was French (though of Ukrainain Jewish lineage), he wrote songs of sex and love and their myriad complications, he delighted in making people uncomfortable by making them acknowledge their own twisted libidos, and yes, he was a homely, painfully insecure guy who managed to attract the most beautiful women in the world.
Serge hid his insecurity with arrogance and bitter cynicism, as evidenced by the lyrics to this song, which, loosely translated tells of a man who discovers his lover has cheated on him and wants her to tell him every detail as a kind of humiliating punishment for her infidelity.
And here is the instrumental B side.
An earlier, though less explicit, song about the pain of infidelity was 1968’s “Manon,” which would pair nicely with Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
In 1966, Serge cemented his dirty old man status by writing a song about a girl who loves lollipops for eighteen year old France Gall, who apparently didn’t get the oral sex metaphor and was mortified for years afterward. Key lyric: “…when the barley sugar/perfumed with aniseed/Slides down Annie’s throat/she is in paradise.”
It’s easy, obviously, to get lost in the provocative nature of Serge’s music and miss out on the fact that the songs were often incredibly strong; he took influences from Paris, London, New York and the Caribbean and blended them together to create something recognizably French but unlike anything anyone else was doing. And he wasn’t too arrogant to mock himself, as this inner dialogue in “Un poison violent, c’est ça l’amour” shows.
Serge died in 1991. His third wife, the singer Jane Birkin, had left him in 1980 after his carousing had gotten to be too much to accept. His already excessive smoking and drinking only worsened after the divorce, to the point where a friend of his said that Serge had been slowly committing suicide for ten years. The elegantly ragged, mischievous scamp persona that Gainsbourg had cultivated may have been his undoing. His influence remains strong, though, even in countries where most of us only understand every twentieth word of his lyrics.
Here is a French television special of his album Histoire de Melody Nelson. See if you can spot the part that De la Soul sampled in “Not Over Until the Fat Lady Plays the Demo,” or the visual element that Beck lovingly swiped for his video for “The New Pollution.” Even if you can’t understand the words, the lush music and trippy visuals make for a compelling twenty-eight minutes.