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PARIS (Reuters) - The work of Serge Gainsbourg, the large-nosed, Gitanes-smoking French icon whose jazzy, bohemian songs exemplified a sexually liberated France of the 1960s and 1970s, is enjoying a resurgence in the most unlikely of places -- perfume ads.
Two upscale brands, Christian Dior and Guerlain, both controlled by luxury giant LVMH, have chosen Gainsbourg's rasping voice for television ad campaigns currently running on French TV for the perfumes Miss Dior and Shalimar.
The artist who half-spoke, half-sang his songs and died in 1991 is beloved in France. Despite what he himself called his ugly face, Gainsbourg had a long string of lovers, including Brigitte Bardot, and brought a sexually charged energy to his music that is now being seized on by advertisers.
In the ad for Shalimar, a brand that first debuted in the 1920s, naked model Natalia Vodianova writhes on an unmade bed as the catchy piano riff of Gainsbourg's "The Initials BB" plays.
Gainsbourg's most suggestive and once-censored song, "Je t'aime...Moi Non Plus," (I love you ... me neither') which he recorded with then-lover Jane Birkin is the soundtrack to a Miss Dior perfume ad shot by director Sofia Coppola and starring Oscar winner Natalie Portman.
As Birkin's breathy voice catches in an apparent sexual climax, Portman lounges in a lavish, sun-filled Paris apartment, occasionally sniffing pink roses or gazing longingly at her tuxedo-clad lover.
Gainsbourg's status as an icon of "chanson" -- that decidedly French genre of lyric-based poems sung by such greats as Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel -- makes him an attractive target for advertisers, argues David Looseley, emeritus professor of contemporary French culture at the University of Leeds.
"These people, once they're dead, they're immediately acquired for their nostalgic element which gives the product not just the image of contemporary sexiness but an extra allure of the past," Looseley said.
The consumer products, he said, are then colored with a "slightly sepia edge," a retro quality that "slightly distances the sexuality... makes it a bit more palatable."
Gainsbourg's popularity has never really faded -- his grave in Paris's Montparnasse cemetery still attracts fans who leave flowers, cigarettes and Metro stubs for their idol -- but a recent upsurge in interest has kept his name in front of fans.
"Gainsbourg, The Man Who Loved Women," a documentary released last year, chronicled 30 years of the provocateur's relationships with a host of personal and professional muses from Birkin and Bardot to Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Hardy and Vanessa Paradis.
A film about the singer's life, "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" reaped France's prestigious Cesar awards earlier this year for lead actor Eric Elmosnino and director Joann Sfar.
Meanwhile, the actress-singer daughter of Gainsbourg and Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, has kept alive the name of her father, with whom she first sang as a teen on his recording, Lemon Incest.
And like her father, the younger Gainsbourg is now linked to the heady world of fragrance -- as the face of Balenciaga perfume.
Editing by Paul Casciato