To access Serge Gainsbourg’s Parisian house – which will open to the public for the first time on September 20 – you must first go through a metal door. To the right, another door leads to the living room. It’s like entering a space where time has stopped.
Everything (or almost everything) looks the same as on March 2, 1991, the day that Gainsbourg – the pop musician and poet who produced dozens of hits and continues to represent an image of modernity – died. He was 62-years-old. The dim lighting, the black walls, the Steinway piano and the Lowrey organ, a table covered in police badges and handcuffs, a huge photograph of Brigitte Bardot (one of his famous partners)... everything has an unreal feeling.
“It’s like a dream,” said Jane Birkin – Gainsbourg’s partner between 1969 and 1980 – in Jane by Charlotte, the documentary made by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of both artists. It premiered in 2021. Birkin died this past July 16. “You could say that these are prehistoric things,” she added in the film. “Like Pompeii.”
5 Bis Rue Verneuil – a two-story building on a quiet street in the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood – was, between 1968 and his death, Gainsbourg’s residence. Afterwards, it was shuttered. The façade was covered in graffiti and drawings paying homage to the author of Je t’aime moi non plus and The Ballad of Melody Nelson.
Charlotte – an actress and singer – returned from time to time. It occurred to her to turn it into an artists’ residence, or to sell it. But she ruled these options out. A few years ago, she considered a project with the architect Jean Nouvel: a display case that, from the street, would allow you to see the interior, like a doll’s house. Another idea that was also discarded. Once, she even thought about living there again. Her husband – filmmaker Yvan Attal – scoffed: “Are you kidding?”
A temple of pop music
Today – 32-and-a-half years after the death of Serge Gainsbourg and two months after the death of Jane Birkin – Charlotte Gainsbourg has revealed the interior of the house (“5 Bis,” as she calls it). For years, it has been a place of pilgrimage and a temple of pop music, visited by fans and curious people. Until now, they had to stay outside. But, in a few days, they’ll be able to enter.
It’s clear that – as soon as you set foot inside, during a special tour for the press – that this is also part of Gainsbourg’s work, like his records or books. The house resembles a museum… and it already was one when he lived here. The new museum – Maison Gainsbourg – consists of both the house and a space on the same street where there’s a museum about the artist and a bar named after Gainsbarre, his hooligan alter-ego.
“I went to the house, but not much. At first, it was very painful. Then, a little less so. But it was always stressful,” Charlotte Gainsbourg explained this past Wednesday, to a group of journalists at a table at the Gainsbarre. “Everything was preserved thanks to the fact that no one entered and there wasn’t much light. For me it was very important to preserve the smell: the Van Cleef perfume, the smell of Gitanes cigarettes, of alcohol…”
Inside, this smell isn’t as noticeable. Perhaps it’s beginning to dissipate. Although, in the tiny kitchen, there are old preserves and the empty wine bottles that Serge left behind. During visits, only two people can enter at a time: they can spend a maximum of ten minutes inside. The house is relatively small, considering that a star lived there: a very crowded 1,400 square feet. Maybe because the ceilings are low, the hallways and stairs are narrow, a good part of the house is carpeted or covered with rugs, while the space is crammed with all sorts of objects and pieces of furniture. There’s even a life-sized figure of a human being.
The visitor puts on headphones and listens to a recording of Charlotte’s whispering voice, which guides them. “We watched TV while we ate,” says the voice in the kitchen. “He always ate with the same fork. I think he took it from Maxim’s (a legendary Parisian restaurant).” The visitor goes up the stairs and discovers the closet with Gainsbourg’s clothes: his jackets and ties, his uniform of jeans and a denim shirt, his white Repetto shoes… always without socks, even if it snowed. Next door is the dolls’ room – where Charlotte and Serge played video games – and the tiny office where Serge read and wrote. There’s the white IBM computer that he typed on, as well as a treatise on medical pathology that he liked to consult. And a stuffed spider. Next comes the bathroom and the bedroom: everything is plainly visible.
At the Gainsbarre table, Charlotte Gainsbourg comments: “There’s a voyeuristic side to this. My mother said: ‘It’s okay, voyeur.’ I don’t worry about what she would think of this. I have a shameless side. In my family, we have something modest and, at the same time, something very impudent. Anyway, I have the impression that everyone knows everything about him. I don’t feel at all like I’m revealing secrets about him.”
And yet, you walk away with a strange sensation after looking into the bathroom, with its ornate lamp, or into the bedroom where Jane Birkin’s perfumes and the tapestry – covered in scenes of cannibalism – remain. In the recording that the visitor listens to, Charlotte recalls that, sometimes, when she went to school in the morning, her parents would return from a night of drinking and clubbing. She also remembers the death of her father in his bed; how she, her sister Kate and Bambou – Gainsbourg’s partner at the time – stretched out next to the body. In the street, the fans sang his songs. Everything is intact in the room, even the Stimorol gum, the Florent licorice, the lollipops and the Smarties chocolates that Gainsbourg had on his nightstand.
Charlotte, at the bar table, provides more details. She explains that, two days before her father died, he invited her to return to live with him at 5 Bis. In one of his last agendas, he noted: “Give the keys to Charlotte.” In those days, she was suffering from a heartbreak. Her father prepared the doll room for her. Next to the bed, for his daughter – who was 19-years-old at the time – he left an ashtray, a packet of Marlboro Lights and a box of the medicine, Lexomil. “This will shock many responsible parents,” his daughter smiles.
When explaining the reasons for opening the house, Charlotte Gainsbourg talks about her own children: “I was afraid that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. For me, it was a burden for 32 years.” And she adds: “I said to myself: ‘Imagine that I die, what will they do?’”
The project has taken four years to develop. Content director Anatole Maggiard and curator Sébastien Merlet – among others – have worked with Gainsbourg. For Charlotte, it’s surely also the end of a chapter in her life.
In the documentary Jane by Charlotte, the daughter commented to her mother while they were visiting the house: “I feel like letting go of everything and thinking that this will go on without me… it will be the end of something.” Now, about to open the museum, she comments: “I recognize that, in effect, it’s the end of something… but I don’t want to phrase it that way yet.”
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