Saturday, December 23, 2017

With Love from France - Three essential French Instrumentals

Un homme et une femme se rencontrent par accident un dimanche soir. Lentement, ils se révèlent à un autre, trouvant que chacun est veuf. Chacun est lent à révéler quelque chose de personnel de sorte que chaque révélation est cachée par une perception erronée. Ils deviennent des amis, puis des amis proches, mais alors la femme révèle qu'elle ne peut pas avoir un amant parce que, pour elle, la mémoire de son mari est encore trop forte. Une grande partie du film est dit sans en action, ou en entendant leurs pensées comme ils vont sur leur journée.

With over 3000 hits this week from la belle France, I have hacked out a blurb about one of my favorite films, A Man and A Woman, a romantic 1966 epic about cars and girls, all to the tune of one of film's most iconic soundtracks. I don’t know how accurate my French is – it has been a long time – but I thought I'd give it a shot. En anglais plein: A man and a woman meet by accident on a Sunday evening. Slowly they reveal themselves to one other, finding that each is a widower. Each is slow to reveal anything personal so that each revelation is hidden by a misperception. They become friends, then close friends, but then the woman reveals that she can't have a lover because, for her, her husband's memory is still too strong. Much of the film is told wordlessly in action, or through hearing their thoughts as they go about their day.

So, the music. One of the single most iconic hit instrumentals, the theme to A Man and a Woman is frankly unforgettable, for better or for worse. One either hates it or loves it. I am of the latter group, finding Francis Lai's tune able to conjure up the essence of France: jazz, sensuality, pastoral country sides, the City of Lights and cool cars. While a film noir masterpiece, if you don't like the song, you won't like the film.

Interestingly, there are no less than three Billboard top ten French "instrumentals" (all three have lyrics) from the 1960s: "A Man and a Woman," Paul Mauriat's "Love is Blue," a smash No. 1 hit, and Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's "Je t'aime… moi non plus." In 1967, during his torrid but brief affair with Brigitte Bardot, Serge Gainsbourg wrote a song for the two of them to sing together, it's title translating nonsensically to "I Love You... Neither Do I". Confusing and ambiguous, it may simply have been an acknowledgement that their love couldn't last, but in any event, Bardot asked that he not release it. In 1968, the 40-year-old Gainsbourg met 22-year-old English actress and model Jane Birkin on the set of the film Slogan. On their first night alone together, he took her on a tour of Paris clubs, including a transvestite bar, and fell asleep drunk. It was a typical night for Gainsbourg. The couple recorded the song late in the year and released it to great controversy in early '69. It was denounced by the Vatican and initially banned in the U.S. for its orgasmic moans and groans. (Gainsbourg called the Pope "our greatest PR man.") Let's see, a synopsis: Jane: I love you, I love you. Serge: Me neither. Jane: Oh my love. Serge: Like a vacillating wave, I go, I come and I go, Inside of you, and I hold myself back. Jane: I love you, I love you. Serge: Me neither. You get the point. Then of course comes Jane’s heavy breathing, and the lyrics, "No! Come! Now!" amidst more heavy breathing. What's more rock 'n' roll than that?

The song was a commercial success – reaching number 1 on the U.K., Swiss, Norwegian, and Austrian charts and breaking the top 10 in many other European countries. By the end of the decade, the song had sold 4 million copies.

Of the three French hits on American radio, the most successful was Mauriat's "Love is Blue." Like Burt Bacharach in the states, Paul Mauriat brought orchestral music to the pop charts. The infectious tune is difficult to deny. 

There is so much to celebrate about France: Impressionism, Satie, Les Miserables, Madame Curie, Voltaire, Lumiere, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, on and on, all overshadowing the Republic's contribution to popular music, but for three brief shining moments in the 60s, France dominated the airwaves.