I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Charlotte For Ever
I watch a whole lot of stuff. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's bad, and sometimes I genuinely question my abilities to discern between 'weird' and 'genuinely borderline, not okay.' So welcome to the new Back Row review segment called: I Watched It So You Don't Have To.
What better to start off with than Serge Gainsbourg's Charlotte For Ever (1986), the movie that brought Gainsbourg's "Lemon Incest" to life. That's right, the famously controversial pun-tasctic duet by Serge, and his then thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte, that lyrically blurs the lines between familial love and physical love. I know what you're thinking already, but don't even look at me for this one because this song hit number two on the French charts when it came out in 1985. This shit is on your shoulders first, France.
I won't say I was ever actively interested in seeing Charlotte For Ever because quite frankly I wasn't. However, when Lincoln Center announced a Jane Birkin retrospective with Jane Birkin in person, I couldn't not go. In fact, I saw a handful of good movies that week, plus I got to see her talk in person before Slogan (1969) and it was glorious. But I also couldn't resist the intrigue of seeing such an infamous film so I ended up sticking around for Charlotte For Ever too. I am pretty much positive I am on a list somewhere now.
I think it's important to preface this entire film with where Serge was in his life when he wrote, directed and stared in it. By 1986 Serge Gainsbourg was not doing well. His drinking had gotten out of hand and Jane Birkin had left him. He was constantly appearing drunk in public and on television appearances – including his infamously explicit come-on to Whitney Houston. His love for puns took on a darker tone with his album Love on the Beat, with references to explicit sex, prostitution, homosexuality and of course "Lemon Incest." His health was failing rapidly and he underwent surgery on his liver in 1989. By 1991 he died of a heart attack in his home.
In the parallel world of Charlotte For Ever, Stan (Serge Gainsbourg) is an alcoholic ex-screenplay writer whose wife died, causing his life to shatter. He lives in a large, dark, empty house with his defiant daughter Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is also dealing with both her own grief and her anger towards her father. She believes he is responsible for the accident that killed her mother and spews hatred at him as any fifteen-year-old would. In-between pleas from his manager to write one more screenplay, flashbacks of the accident and a general haze of alcohol and cigarettes, Stan spends his days moping around his house, considering suicide. The only link to happiness in his life is his daughter, with whom he begins to confuse the type of love he had for his wife.
This is definitely one of the weirdest films I've ever seen in tone shifts, humor, lighting, direction, musical cues and overall point. From the bizarre unexplained characters that are always inexplicably weeping while drifting in and out of the house, to the constant slow-mo flashbacks of an oil tanker explosion (which I got the sense they just wanted to milk for all it was worth because I'm sure it was the most expensive part to shoot), to the fact it's so darkly lit you find yourself squinting to see while watching it, to the questionable father-daughter half naked bed hangouts, to repetitious '80s smooth jazz music that starts and stops whenever there's a young female derrière to highlight in close-up, bopping to the music... This movie is just nuts.
Even stranger, it wasn't at all what I expected. To be honest, it just felt like a hate letter from Serge to himself. His character is only shown as unattractive, if not downright disgusting; from scenes of vomit, long strings of snot, and peeing, he only stops short of showing himself taking a shit on the camera (but even then they talk about feces enough you wouldn't notice the difference). In that way, it strangely tempers the whole incest theme – which of course is more implied than actually shown. I'm not saying this movie gets any passes per se, there's still unnecessary nudity of his own teen daughter, but strangely it doesn't feel as leering as I felt movies like Leon the Professional or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders were. In fact, this movie is simply the antithesis to glorification, it's more akin to watching Serge Gainsbourg staring in a mirror and punching himself in the face for two hours. Or more literally, there's a scene where he puts a loaded gun in his daughter's hands and presses his forehead to it, demanding she kill him. It's a messy, indulgent, and arguably pretentious wreck – much like the man himself in 1986.
The movie also makes sure to end with a slap in the face to the audience too. Stan writhes in his bed clutching his heart (sadly prophetic) and proclaiming he's going to die, while Charlotte weeps and apologizes for blaming him for the mother's death. Stan stops writhing and playfully calls her a little shit, as that damn smooth jazz song starts up again and they both start to bop around to it while in bed. The overhead camera slow zooms out, revealing the entire constructed set, including the flood lights and wires around it. It's one giant "gotcha!" – functioning to absolve Serge of his crimes against himself and nature (and cinema) – but to me it comes across as the type of joke that hits too close to home to really laugh at.
At the end of the day, I genuinely don't know who I'd ever recommend Charlotte For Ever to but I will say it was a pretty wild viewing experience. What really mystifies me is how he managed to get so many people to make this film with him. Though at the same time I'm sure the mood on set was that of amused bewilderment – "Can you believe what he's giving us money to make? Whatever you want, man."