Yves Saint Laurent

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Backstage clip - Confession d’un enfant du siècle (2012)

About that English rocker, French girl thing.

Beside promotional activities for Melancholia, her third baby, her fourth album, and its attendant live tour, Charlotte’s other project in 2011 was up-and-coming director Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century, an adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s thinly-novelized account of his love affair with the much-older George Sand. (Whatever else Charlotte Gainsbourg may be, she is a busy woman.) Charlotte was cast as not-George - remember that Yves Saint Laurent smoking jacket? - and, of all people, sempiternal Libertine (small l and large) Peter Doherty as not-Alfred. For the record, Doherty was supposedly a dove on set, his behaviour and inexperience less problematic than his lack of French, which meant the production couldn’t apply for the usual culture grants and had to resort to the Kickstarter-like Touscoprod to cover a 25,000-euro budget shortfall. (Don’t panic: as I write, they’re at 118% with 138 days to go.)

Several UK media outlets reported on this piece of epic stunt-casting hilarity with the angle that the benighted French take Doherty to be another Serge Gainsbourg. This is patent nonsense; clearly they take him to be another Oscar Wilde. Wilde never wrote a word after he repaired, broken and syphilitic, to Paris, but that’s of little import. In the accepted history of Western civilization, it falls to France to accommodate the British Isles’ cultural producers when they make the British Isles too hot to hold them – or even if, like Jarvis Cocker, they merely married a Frenchwoman and had a hankering to get out of town. Meanwhile, when Charlemagne’s scions get into trouble, they go to Africa like Rimbaud. #factseveryoneknows

One of the images that preoccupied ex-Dior Homme fashion designer(*) and photographer, Hedi Slimane, who obsessively took pictures of the Libertines back in the day – sorry, bear with me, this will make sense – for a few years, Hedi Slimane’s online photo diary featured regular appearances by the Spirit of Ecstasy, the female figurine that’s the Rolls-Royce bonnet ornament. In 2008, I wrote:

The Spirit has cropped up at least once in the middle of a set of Peter pictures, when as far as I know, he doesn’t own a Rolls. It also plays a key role in the dramatic opening monologue of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson album, in which the protagonist (played by Gainsbourg) knocks the teenaged Melody (played by muse and longtime companion Jane Birkin) off her bike with his RR Silver Ghost. The accompanying video foregrounds the subtextual equivalence between Melody/Jane and the Spirit/automobile: both exotic (from Gainsbourg’s POV) because quintessentially English; both designed to convey a sense of speed, grace, and airy romance. “Melody”, of course, is not so much a realistic nymphet as the anthropomorphization of British Rock ‘n’ Roll - “14 autumns, going on 15” - putting her birth year at the formation of the Beatles (“Nelson” is self-explanatory). Which makes the sexual affair an extended metaphor for the Anglophilia that produced Gainsbourg’s yé-yé album with Brigitte Bardot (this reading is consistent with dude’s usual modus operandi of framing EVERYTHING as sex with underaged girls), a favour returned by Morrissey when he picked the video of "Bubble Gum" to open one of his recent tours.

Interestingly, Melody dies in the story [spoiler!!! –Ed.] when her plane crashes in the Channel, and the protagonist imagines her body washing up on a tropical island where it becomes part of a cargo cult… After which Gainsbourg did reggae for the rest of the Seventies.

Author’s note: I assume Morrissey got into Gainsbourg via Petula Clark, who covered a bunch of his songs, but he’s probably actually said something about it in print I haven’t read. Also, two recent K-pop discussions linked in my memory: a Singles Jukebox entry where Anthony Easton explicitly makes a comparison between HyunA’s “Bubble Pop” and Bardot/Gainsbourg’s “Comic Strip” (why not “Bubble Gum”??), and a Tumblr exchange regarding the use of English in Korean, Quebecois, and French-from-France pop respectively. I’m going to quote the relevant bit in my comment, because why the heck not:

There is also a longstanding tradition of French-from-France rock/pop/folk containing random English lyrics - this happens to be foremost on my mind because I’m playing Charlotte For Ever, the ‘87 album Serge Gainsbourg recorded with his daughter Charlotte, which is full of the sort of bilingual wordplay one associates with Japanese and Korean diaspora rappers. If I had to reduce the argument I’d say it was because rock’n’roll = English (American or British), to the French, and hip-hop = English (definitely American), to Asians, and a certain level/type of massive global popstar-dom = English to everyone, and so artists use English to anchor their work explicitly in those genre traditions (not quite the same as “trying to be authentic”). Almost analogous to, it’s got a “wobble”, therefore it is dubstep.

I unload all this because in the Charlotte For Ever scenes that take place in Serge/Stan’s library, there is a ten-inch-tall statuette of the Spirit of Ecstasy sitting at Charlotte’s elbow, well central to the frame. Yeah, I LOLed.

Beside Morrissey, who else returned the favour?

Blur, of course. Duetting with Françoise Hardy on “To The End (La Comédie)”. (There is a very funny anecdote in Alex James’ autobiography where they go to her house and she validates his earthly existence by offering him cheese.) Jarvis, who is the single British musician who most wants to retread Serge Gainsbourg’s ground, and is most successful at doing so – even if I thought his cover of “I Just Came To Tell You That I’m Going” was too reverential to be meaningful. He brought his A-game to 5:55; I’m pretty onboard with his solo releases, but Charlotte’s album features his best lyrics of the decade (I’ll post separately about “The Operation”). Meanwhile, Stage Whisper contains one rather good “mid-00s UK acoustic indie” song – "Memoir" – written by Novello-winner Conor O’Brien of the Villagers, and another by Charlie Fink out of Noah and the Whale (really).

Confessions of a Child of the Century will not, I think, be scored by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Peter Doherty in conjunction, although this was reported at one point – presumably by people who like me wanted it badly enough to deny reality and replace it with one of their own choosing. If this situation changes, I’ll report back. With emoticons.

(*) Pre-Dior Homme, Slimane worked for – you’re getting the hang of this, I imagine – Yves Saint Laurent, as something of a favoured apprentice. When Tom Ford took over the creative direction of YSL, Saint Laurent created a stir by not attending Ford’s show, but making a very rare public appearance at Slimane’s Dior debut. The kremlinological inference being, of course, that iki was being assigned to Slimane in lieu of the company’s putative heir.