Yes, the smell is gay to me
From the hole in my lover’s ass
Cool and sour as an old cherry
Rotting gaily in the rain
– Paul Verlaine (trans. Daniel Sloate)
According to the dominant mores of academic film theory, narrative cinema is about the process of voyeuristic watching. Such theories are rooted in deeply conservative and essentialist notions of gender and sexuality; they are underpinned by ideas that ultimately deny pleasure or desire, that view such states instead from a frigid psychoanalytic orthodoxy (1). These theories also fail to note that cinema is not merely a visual experience but also aural, and, most importantly, visceral.
Cinema can evoke physiological reactions amongst audiences. Even if working under the assumption that cinema is “merely” visual, what follows is a discussion of a film that is about that most rarely seen of cinematic sights: the asshole. And even in this film, it is not physically seen in pink-star-fish close-up. Yet, even if rendered as invisible, it still emerges as the centre of the narrative. Perhaps the anus can never be filmed; rather it exists as a gap, a space, and a void. Or a black sun, as Georges Bataille observed “the solar anus is the intact anus of her body at eighteen years to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun” (2).
In 1967 Serge Gainsbourg recorded and released the first version of what was to become one of his most famous songs “Je t’aime moi non plus” with Brigitte Bardot. In this erotic, organ driven song Gainsbourg – the notorious singer as famous for his seductions and scandalous behaviour (3) as for his music – makes an ambiguous declaration of love that while sounding romantic is in fact about unrequited love, with the female vocalist stating her love while the male replies in the negative. When Gainsbourg recorded the song again in 1969 with Jane Birkin, the best-known version, rumours of genuine sexual groans on the soundtrack allied with the song’s overt libidinal trajectory led to the BBC banning the record. Despite this, however, the single sold over six million copies worldwide, and Birkin has humorously commented that the song’s sexual charge has inadvertently led to numerous pregnancies (4).
On closer examination the song’s lyrics evoke ambiguous images such as “pushing against wind”. While some may choose to interpret these words as a bizarrely charged erotic litany that details the metaphysical foibles of passionate romance, the wind in the sails of love and so forth, other lyrics suggest a more overtly sexual theme. One line sees the male narrator describing “coming and going” between the female protagonist’s “kidneys”, suggesting that the song is simultaneously an affirmation of heterosexual anal sex. The sexual transgression and romantic nihilism of the song’s lyrics became clear in the movie, Je t’aime moi non plus (1976) staring the actress and singer Jane Birkin and famous underground / B-movie star Joe Dallesandro, who views the film as one of his best. Directed, written, and scored by Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime moi non plus premiered in France in March 1976 (5). Subsequently forgotten and rarely screened, it remains one of the most critically neglected movies of its era. With its cinematography emphasising a wide, flat American rural landscape marked only by an occasional structure, the movie recalls Edward Hopper’s paintings, an effect that is reinforced by sparse dialogue, suggesting that the characters are all distanced from one another. But Je t’aime moi non plus is most significant for its focus on transgressive sexuality and anal sex.
This is a movie about a specific anus; that of the central protagonist Johnny, played by the director’s wife. Outside the world of hardcore pornography there is possibly no other movie produced in which the auteur has cast his wife in the role of the repeatedly buggered female. Birkin’s agent advised her against taking the role. Reportedly the shoot was fairly relaxed, with cast and crew living communally during the two-months it took to complete filming, despite this, however, Gainsbourg was reportedly wincing “with jealousy during some of …Jane’s sex scenes with Dallesandro” (6).
His sicknesses are infinitely more interesting than other people’s health
– Jane Birkin
For many people heterosexual anal intercourse is still the most transgressive sexual act imaginable. Anal sex renounces any pretence of procreation, it is commonly believed to be unpleasurable for women, it has socio-cultural connotations of male homosexuality, and it is commonly thought of as dirty and faecal. It was illegal in Britain until 1994 and remains forbidden in parts of the western world. Not a sexual act commonly considered to be romantic nor worthy of a celebratory pop song (7), if discussed at all, anal sex is seen predominately as a Sadean fixation and hardcore porn staple. Certainly it is never viewed as an act of love.
Je t’aime moi non plus is a film that is defined by distorted and fragmented bodies, scatological desires and erotic excesses. Even to contemporary audiences, this is a film that stinks of “perversion”, that reeks of sweat, cum, urine, shit and soiled panties, but this not a “perversion” troubled by dull clichés of morality or simplistic notions of sexual normality (a normality which clearly does not and never has existed), rather this is a “perversion” that moves outwards, extending beyond culturally ascribed limits, diving into a veritable sewer of infinite possibilities. “Perversion” may have traditionally been prescribed by those with power as a discursive naming which seeks to label the “perverse” as “other” but “perversion” always already exists as a commonplace, although in a repressed form. My response to the cultural implementation of the perverse is simultaneously celebratory and rigorous, my desire to explore and articulate, to both engage and ejaculate, to become the will to perversion.
Je t’aime moi non plus is characterised by a vertiginous cinematic focus on sexual obsession, brutality and all the fluidic traces of the body: shit, blood, ejaculation, and tears. This is a film in which fragments of bodies become dislocated to the point of abjection, where all that can be said to fill the screen is an eroticism that spills beyond traditional representations of sex, sexuality, and gender. Je t’aime moi non plus is a film that glorifies in the mise en abime of the heterogenous, a film that is concerned with the sacred excesses beyond purely reproductive (and, via implication, functional) sex, pursuing the erotic deep into the abyss of pure annihilation. Yet, unlike accepted classics of the ’60s-into-’70s sex-art-film such as Ai No Corrida (In The Realm of The Senses, Nagisa Oshima, 1969), Last Tango In Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), or Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975), Je t’aime moi non plus has largely been forgotten, overlooked by writers and fans of ’70s sleazoid and erotic cinema.
Je t’aime moi non plus tells the story of two homosexual garbage men, Krassky (Dallesandro) and Padovan (Hugues Quester), who meet sexy-androgyne Johnny (Birkin), so called because, as she states, “I have no tits and a big arse”. Johnny lives and works for the heavily flatulent Boris (Rene Kolldehoff) in a remote dinner-cum-bar located in the almost nightmarish, collapsing, quasi-rural landscape which may, or may not, be the American Southwest (it is never stated in the film), a terrain characterised in Gainsbourg’s film by a mixture of intense sexual frustration, slab-of-meat-ugly women, aggressive-simpleton males, and mountains of rotten, filthy trash. Krassky and Johnny begin an intense relationship, much to Padovan’s dismay. However Krassky is unable to consummate the relationship via vaginal intercourse, and can only fuck the boyish-looking Johnny anally.
On their first date Krassky takes Johnny to the roller derby, the couple watch as the female skaters smash into one-another, the audience cheer at the female-on-female savagery. The roller derby is followed by a dinner during which Johnny fellates her food, mixing the enthusiastic deep-throat gusto of an amateur porn-starlet with an emotionally cold, dead pan flat-nihilism that oozes ennui.
During their subsequent sexual encounter Krassky attempts vaginal penetration but is unable to maintain his hard-on. Johnny accuses Krassky of being a “poof” and he brutally turns on her, she hides, cowering and naked, under the grubby sink in the tiny motel room. He pushes his dirty bare foot against her mouth to shut her up while she repeatedly decries his sexual performance (or lack of). When she turns away from him Krassky sees Johnny’s boyish ass; suddenly he is aroused. Gently he mounts her and forces his cock into her ass. Cut to a shot of the corridor outside the rented room, the soundtrack is punctuated by screams of pain as Johnny’s asshole is forced open before Krassky’s cock. The other tenants of the motel emerge in the corridor and knock on Krassky’s door, evicting the couple before they can complete their lovemaking.
The lovers repeatedly attempt to consummate their relationship. Johnny finds anal penetration painful, and her echoing screams and cries of distress repeatedly disturb their neighbours, and the couple are forced to leave hotel room after hotel room in order to find a place in which to complete their copulation. Je t’aime moi non plus sets up a series of scenes that depict the couple never-achieving sexual satisfaction. Although the film emphasises Krassky’s need to penetrate Johnny anally it becomes clear at the film’s climax that this pleasure is mutual.
Krassky is, in the final scenes, eventually able to fuck the androgyne Johnny in the back of the dirt splattered garbage truck, where they are undisturbed, and it is here, in the steel shell of the dump truck that her cries of pain become moans of pleasure and a declaration of undying love. During this final act of anal sex – the audience are led to believe – both Krassky and Johnny cum. Johnny’s moans of pleasure become recognisable as those on the recording of the title song, the music swells on the soundtrack to complement her embuggerment. This is a love theme celebrating anal sex in the back of a dump truck.
In the diner, following this successful encounter, Padovan attacks Johnny, dragging her naked from her bath. He attempts to suffocate her, wrapping the garbage sack he permanently carries with him around her head. His murderous assault only ends when Krassky enters the bar. Johnny demands Krassky beat Padovan, but he refuses to. Shocked at this Johnny loses her temper and tells Krassky to leave. As Krassky and Padovan leave together, a naked, sobbing Johnny begs for Krassky to stay. The garbage men don’t give a shit about the wailing waif. They climb into their truck and leave.
Whilst the film’s interest in sex is hardly surprising (it was, after all, produced in the relatively censorship free, pre-AIDS glory days of the ’70s), its fascination with anal penetration takes it beyond the realm of most non-pornographic “erotic” movies from the period. The only similar movie to depict anal intercourse between a male and female is Last Tango In Paris, but while in Last Tango this is viewed as a turning point, ultimately for the worse, in the couple’s relationship, in Je t’aime moi non plus it is barely commented on by Johnny. Moreover, in Last Tango In Paris Paul forces a handful of butter into Jeanne’s rectum, working it into the tight hole with his fingers, the melting fat acting as a lubricant for her dry asshole and his hard cock. In Je t’aime moi non plus there is no lube, this is a film about the raw brutality of desire.
Part of what makes Je t’aime moi non plus fascinating in its celebration of perversion is in its emphasis on anal sex as simultaneously painful yet always necessary. Each time Johnny is penetrated the soundtrack is punctuated by her cries and screams. And these are not the howls and moans commonly associated with the cinematic representation of sexual pleasure. The cold brutality of the first attempt at buggery, immediately following her vicious rejection by Krassky when he is too revolted by the filthy stink of her femininity to fuck her cunt, suggests that these cries are those of pain. Moreover her loneliness and desperate need for love and affection makes her easily susceptible to Krassky’s unflinching brutality, so alone is Johnny that feeling anything becomes necessary. However, Johnny (unlike her counterpart in that other anal-penetration classic Last Tango In Paris) repeatedly invites what many people would consider humiliating degradation in pursing her relationship with the emotionally distant Krassky in the knowledge that he only desires to fuck her in the ass.
That anal sex is painful and that Krassky’s penis hurts is emphasised repeatedly, firstly the metanarrative around Joe Dallesandro is such that the audience “knows” that his cock warrants pop culture iconographic status. Moreover, within the film, the pain of anal sex is emphasised in a confrontation between Krassky’s abandoned lover Padovan and a protagonist referred to in the movie’s literature only as Man on Horse (played by Gérard Depardieu, no less) who tells him, whilst fondling the ears of a large white stallion, “You want me to stick it up your bottom… I’ve sent more than one to the hospital”. In the film anal sex is implicitly about rectal tearing, anal damage and bruising pain, that is why Johnny screams and cries. But it is also about the need and the risk of pleasure; eventually Johnny has an orgasm with Krassky inside her anus.
The film is, in part, about large endlessly hard cocks, and is fixated primarily on the phallic power of Krassky. That, despite the narrative locating its trajectory within a clearly heterosexual coupling, the film clearly appeals to some mythic size-queen audience, both those who would self-define as homosexual and heterosexual, is remarkable.
I want to fuck your pink asshole… the same ass that shits out garbage
– from Richard Kern’s Fingered
Not only is the narrative focused on anal sex, but also the film’s mise en scène repeatedly draws attention to the iconography of the anal, the faecal and the scatological. The protagonists’ roles as garbage men is emphasised by their fascination with detritus, rubbish, trash, and, by implication, shit; all elements that are linked by the need for the healthy body, both human and social, to expel in order to maintain a hygienic state. The closeness of garbage informs the film, which dwells on images of the garbage truck driving-up dirt tracks, the two garbage men wrestling each other amid piles of rubbish, and Krassky pissing into the garbage, the soundtrack of spraying piss long and loud.
The links between trash, rot, decay and death also emerge in the film’s opening scene, which depicts the garbage men’s large Mack truck driving towards the dump, a large crow crushed into a black feather and blood smear against the windshield. When the men reach the garbage dump, Padovan removes the avio-cadaver from the windshield and throws it into the air, pretending to shoot at its lifeless body as it falls, crashing to the ground. The soundtrack is dominated by the rich buzz of blowflies, the same winged buzz that punctuate later scenes set at the garbage dump.
In one notable sequence Krassky takes Johnny on a date to the dump, a gigantic pit full of stinking trash. Lying on the very brim of the landfill, Johnny sings: “Krass is working in the shit hole” – the multiple meaning of this is clear, he has worked in her shit hole, and he is the garbage man. To which Krassky replies “I find that pretty this mountain of shit… it’s the nausea of cities, the vomit of mankind… and the source of the Styx”. In this scene, trash, decay, death (via the notion of the mythic river Styx) and (imminent) sex combine around this short exchange. It is in paying witness to the liquidification and stench of putrefaction, and through the act of chaotic sex that humans understand their relationship to being-in-the-world. Through these bodily events we come to know our own animalism and by extension the certainty of our mortality. Later in the scene Krassky sticks his finger in his ear and removes balls of grubby earwax – once again he is the garbage man whose knowledge extends to the abject filth of the human body.
Johnny’s corpse-like passivity during sex – either face down on the floor, or bent unmoving over a bed, her dress pulled over her head revealing her asshole to her lover – also echoes the stillness of death. Another scene similarly links trash and sex: Krassky gives Johnny an old stuffed children’s cuddly toy that he has rescued from the mounds of fetid trash; later she masturbates holding this gift.
Krassky and Padovan – who permanently wields an empty transparent plastic refuse sack – understand garbage and shit, but other protagonists are also defined via the scatological, most notably the owner of the diner/ bar, Boris. This repulsive figure is eternally farting; his stinking bowels suffering from his apparently endless consumption of discount horseflesh and champagne. The film details his bowel movements which punctuate the narrative as moments of aural abjection when the soundtrack presents the ripe ripping sound of his farts, and also as a theme for conversational topic between protagonists who discuss the cloying smell of his farts and the dietary reasons for his booming flatulence.
Whilst urine does not have, at least in psychoanalytic terms, the same symbolic power as shit, decay or death, lacking both the rotten stench and cultural signification with filthy waste, the act of micturition is nevertheless considered to be unseemly. Notably both Krassky and Johnny are seen pissing in public – Krassky pissing into the mounds of trash, and Johnny crouching, her blue jeans around ankles by the dusty roadside. This is the first scene in which her gender difference is marked; she must crouch to piss, while Krassky can stand. While Padovan is appalled at the image of her pissing, Krassky appears not to even register her crouching posture.
But it is not just sex that is fixated on waste and scatology; the characters within the film are painted with a misanthropic glee. The male characters are characterised via a casual brutality; Krassky ultimately rejects Johnny, the lecherous Boris radiates a sweaty loathsomeness, and Padovan appears as a borderline psychopath. When he eventually attacks Johnny in a long, drawn out scene, it is only Krassky’s entry that prevents Padovan from suffocating the choking, naked screaming woman. Padovan doesn’t hate women alone; in another scene, he is hurling racist abuse at a black patron of the bar. There is no depth to which Padovan does not sink in his urge to articulate the link between his understanding of filth and his understanding of humanity.
Krassky and Padovan are linked through their sexual relationship, which is presented in odd moments of tenderness and occasionally even love, although the film is devoid of scenes depicting male-male sex. The two men share a mutual loathing of women. This is manifested in one sequence as they work loading the dump truck with dozens of old toilets and bidets: “Hey”, shouts Krassky, “imagine all the vaginas that have sat on these!” To which Padovan replies, “Shut up, I’m going to throw up!” In this conversation the two garbage men identify women as being akin to filth, but not in the classic notion of excrement and dirt or even the psychoanalytic notion of the cloacae – the “down there” that conflates vagina and anus. It is not the asshole that is identified as dirty, but the vagina. It is the vagina that revolts Krassky and Padovan, and so intense and visceral is this loathing that Krassky is unable to consummate even a temporary heterosexual relationship vaginally. Indeed it is apparent that Krassky does not recognise Johnny as female; in one of the film’s more humorous sequences he asks her to dress up, and is shocked when his date arrives wearing a dress, until Johnny reminds him: “but I am a woman” (8).
The heterosexual males are seen to be lazy, stupid, and violent, their casual homophobia leading them into conflict with Krassky and Padovan, culminating in a gang of males beating Padovan into a pulp (somewhat bizarrely accompanied by “Je t’aime” on the soundtrack). This beating only ends when Padovan screams and Krassky comes to the rescue, beating the violent tormentors and taking Padovan home. The women in the film are equally as despairing, presented as listless, pale and lardy at a weekend strip show, their fleshy dullness matching the inarticulate violence of their male audience. Johnny’s desperate need for attention and affirmation becomes equally as nihilistic, her relationship to sex reduced to merely pushing her boyish ass up in the air, waiting to be fucked. She is, finally, just a hole.
The protagonists’ psychology is ultimately rendered as flat, they are too brutally simplistic. Je t’aime moi non plus depicts characters that act merely to pursue specific biological action – to fuck, to be fucked, to eat, to shit. Krassky’s seduction of Johnny is merely the result of his momentary boredom of doing it with Padovan. This is a film in which all behaviour is constructed in relation to the act of anal fucking. No other sexual act transpires. Here nothing else matters.
Je t’aime moi non plus is unremitting in its embrace of the will to perversion. It purses its sexual fascination with an almost clinical obsession. This is a movie in which ass fucking consumes, dominates, annihilates, in which so-called perversity is the norm. There is none of the tiresome, dull, stupefying political correctness that emerges in later sex films. This is desire unleashed in the face of decay and simultaneously as an affirmation of rot and decay. The pointlessness of consumption, the pointlessness of existence, the pointlessness of humanity, and the pointlessness of being are all celebrated and destroyed through the unleashed desire. As Bataille recognised, the solar anus is blinding, an affirmation that burns. To some this is a film in which loneliness and fear dominate, but such ideas fail to account for the film’s misanthropy and simultaneously its recognition of a pleasure that annihilates, an activity which, in the context of the garbage and rot of humanity presented in this film, is, finally, the only activity that makes sense. In its affirmation of one specific sexual act at the expense of all others there is a clear manifestation of the will to perversity.
This text formed the basis of a lecture at the MuMeson Archive, Sydney, 2003.
Bataille, George, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927 – 1939, ed Allan Stoekl, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985
Cooper, Kim and Smay, David, eds, Bubble Music Is The Naked Truth, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2001
Peraldi, Francois, Polysexuality, Semiotext(e) no.10, 1995 (1981)
Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Helter Skelter, London, 2001
- See, most apparently, Laura Mulvey’s tired film-school standard “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, Autumn 1975, an essay which calls for the “destruction of pleasure” before sketching a male / female, active / passive dialectic that is dependent on the very narratives she seeks to attack, denies any plurality of identification, and implicitly makes heterosexist assumptions.
- George Bataille, “The Solar Anus”, in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927 – 1939, ed Allan Stoekl, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, p.9
- Including writing an oral sex themed Eurovision hit for 16-year old French pop diva France Gall, without the singer, so it was claimed, fully appreciating the rather unsubtle references to oral sex throughout the lyrics. Gainsbourg would go on to record Lemon Incest with his young daughter, and went as far as shooting a video which depicted the singer sans-shirt rolling across an unmade bed with his barely pubescent daughter Charlotte.
- In a British TV interview with Graham Norton.
- In checking dates and spellings for this I used the Macmillan International Film Encyclopaedia, Ephrim Katz, 1996; although Birkin and Dallesandro warrant entries Serge Gainsbourg does not, despite directing three further features, Equateur (1983), Charlotte Forever (1986), and Stan The Flasher (1990).
- Sylvie Simmons, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Helter Skelter, London, 2001
- There are few songs about anal sex, and fewer pop songs, although fans of this sub-genre should listen carefully to the lyrics of Toni Basil’s ’80s bubblegum pop classic “Oh Mickey”. For a full discussion of pop and not-so-hidden sex metaphors see Becky Ebenkamp, “Vice is Nice: Songs That Make You Go Hmmmm” and David Smay “Bubblegum & New Wave” both in Kim Cooper and David Smay, eds, Bubble Music Is The Naked Truth, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2001.
- In the dubbed version of the film Johnny states, “I am a woman, you faggot!” thus articulating her knowledge of his sexuality, although this is not present in subtitled versions of the film I have seen.