Dir.: Francois Armanet; Cast: Jeanne Added, Jehnny Beth, Lou Doillon, Brigitte Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Imany, Camelia Jordana, Elli Medeiros, Vanessa Paradis; France 2019, 78 min.
What if Edith Piaf had invented Rock-n-Roll, rather than Elvis Presley? Francois Armanet’s excellent Cannes documentary showcases the musings of ten popular French singers from the Sixties to the present day. The upshot is that Rock-n’-Roll is female and French.
Edith Piaf opens with a raunchy love song for her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash in 1949. In the Sixties, it was the likes of Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine who challenged the predominance of men. Hardy remembers how naïve she and other chanteuses were at a time of total male dominance: When France Gall sang the saucy “Sucettes” songs with composer Serge Gainsbourg, she hadn’t the faintest idea of the double meaning of that ‘lollipop’.
Things have changed since. Camelia Jordana and Jeanne Added felt the freedom of being on stage, describing it as “lifting me out into space”. Sixties photos of Françoise Hardy and singing partner Jacques Dutronc show a different picture, and one that was re-affirmed when she met Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg in the UK “where men expected women to look like Brigitte Bardot” – rather than Hardy’s androgynous look. Jagger claimed “she was his ideal woman”. Ironically even nowadays Charlotte Gainsbourg is hampered by old-fashioned male chauvinism. “I wish I looked more like my mother, but unfortunately I look like my father…he could not understand that I did not like to be on the cover of magazines”. She goes on to talk about the beautiful women in her family, such as Lou Doillon, daughter of filmmaker Jacques Doillon, although the two women had the same mother in the shape of Jane Birkin. Gainsbourg always thinks about herself as pretty and ugly (une jolie-laide), like the teenager she played in her film debut film La Voleuse by Claude Miller. Lou Doillon remembers the burden of having to be interesting to adults who were all creative. But although he father directed, her mother was very much in front of the camera.
Camelia Jordana also remembers that her voice only made an impression when it sounded sweet and sexy, when she got older. Jordana lately found her identity as a strong feminist via the works of Simone de Beauvoir, a signatory of Women’s Manifest, a group that fought to de-criminalise abortion in France. Of the ten, Fontaine is the most radical – and much more so now than in the Sixties. “Stop Talking and take arms. Down with the stronger sex. Death to it” is only one of her provocative songs on stage.
Elli Medeiros, who was born in Montevideo, started her career with the Stinky Toys and was discovered by Malcolm McLaren, who invited the band to London, where they appeared at the ‘100 Club’ in Oxford Street. Having arrived without gear, they asked the Sex Pistols to lend them their outfits, but the band declined. Stinky Toys ended up singing in garb belonging to The Clash. Medeiros reflects that she stopped ‘screaming out her rage on stage’, after she had learned to sing properly.
Vanessa Paradis “feels on stage like a shipmaster” and Lou Doillon compares her music “with making love, forgetting everything else, like religion”. Whilst Paradis was awakened to feminism by Beatrice Dalle, Doillon had to watch TV in her nanny’s room, where she was fascinated by Catherine Ringer of Rita Mitsouko fame. Doillon finally sums up the development of female Rock-n’-Roll stars: “In the Seventies and Eighties, girl bands were more violent on stage then male musicians. They paid the price for being on stage, having to be more mannish than the blokes.” Whilst for Lou Doillon and others, gender fluidity is the order of the day, Fontaine remains a radical feminist: “Fuck l’amour!”
When all is said and done, it’s a shame that women have always had to struggle just to maintain the status quo with men. Oh Les Filles will be remembered mainly for its fabulous music and TV archive clips which certainly prove that female talent is more than skin deep. AS
SCREENING DURING CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019