Birkin was very thin at this time and the director exploited this, staging her as a waitress in a bar in France, the abusive owner Boris (Reinhard Kolldehoff) of which had decided that should be called ‘Johnny’ - as in his view she looked thin, flat-chested, short-haired and much like a boy. She’s seeking something in life more than her dull existence working in a bar and first stop would be a meaningful relationship it seems.
Along comes muscular gay couple Krass (Joe Dallesandro) and Padovan (Hugues Quester), who are working on a truck moving rubbish they collect to a landfill. Krass instantly assumes that Johnny is a boy but then it’s too late for him as it was love/lust at first sight. The boss warns her that he’s gay and jealous Padovan goes to great lengths to derail his intentions towards her, but neither of them are to put off. We then enter a phase of the film where the pair of them are trying to find a way round his lack of interest in females physically, her frustration in that she can’t arouse him and the resulting graphically delivered compromise they come to, you can imagine, as she cries out in pain during sex.
Birkin's character is abused in most ways by all around her throughout the length of this twisted romantic film, which is largely why it became controversial back in the day. It comes across as very low-budget (which maybe it was) and says much more about the abusive relationships on show than anything else. Johnny doesn’t care about all this because she’s fallen in love. Krass is also in love with her (and Padovan, maybe) but just can’t find a way to throw himself into the relationship fully when sexual satisfaction remains aloof.
The film reflects attitudes by some men towards women and the way in which women can end up accepting whatever is thrown at them being driven by other motivators. A kind of Stockholm Syndrome, I guess. The film is all in French with subtitles, but there’s really not a massive amount of dialogue. The music is interesting for sure, with sequences accompanied by banjo, slightly mistuned piano - and with the setting of a hot, dusty, rural France in summer, it has the feel of a Western about it.
The actors, especially Birkin, do really well as they portray this savage story. She’s very pretty and the viewer really gets onside with her, rooting for a positive outcome for her, which seems mostly throughout the film very unlikely to arrive.
In the middle of all this, a very young-looking Gerard Depardieu pops up in a cameo and there’s a bizarre ‘Saturday Night Dance’ sequence which turns from a dance into a striptease competition for the local girls, orchestrated by the decidedly seedy-behaving Boris!
I’m not sure that I get all the tones and underlying messages or themes going on here from Gainsbourg but it certainly was a very interesting watch and if you can stomach the abuse, sexual activity and nudity, there’s a sad and sweet story here at the core, which Birkin portrays extremely competently.