French Film Musicals

  Une femme est une femme

Many national traditions in the global history of the film musical tend to exist in the shadow of Hollywood – at least in standard cinema history books, if not in the hearts of local audiences. But France is a fine example of a country that began innovating in this genre at the moment of the coming of sound in the early 1930s. Indeed, Stanley Donen, co-director (with Gene Kelly) of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), happily confessed that he drew upon various European musicals, especially those of René Clair.


Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930) is a good place to start in order to pinpoint what is distinctive about French musical films. Its opening sequence is constructed around a song, but it is far from being a compact ‘number’ in the Hollywood style – indeed, it runs for nine minutes. We see a song being taught, in fits and starts, to a crowd of people by a barker selling sheet music. Clair carefully situates the song within the social space of the town and its daily rituals. It then takes another thirty-five minutes for the film to reach its second song – reflecting how loose and open this genre could be before the Hollywood ‘rules’ came into force. Indeed, as we shall see, French musicals were later to return proudly to such inventive arrangements of the genre’s standard ingredients.


Above all, Sous les toits de Paris offers us a realistic rendering of song, quite different to the flights of fantasy with which we customarily associate the genre. And realism was to be one of two central paths that the French musical took in its subsequent evolution. It is striking that so many French productions take the form of what Hollywood calls the backstage musical – blending the narrative into the staging of a play, the running of a club, the recording of an album, or the touring of a band. In this way, the music (and also any accompanying dance component) is always realistically placed as live performance, rather than simply erupting magically as a stylistic artifice.


Examples of this predilection for realism run from the Josephine Baker vehicles Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935), through Jean Renoir’s classic French Cancan (1954) and Louis Malle’s romp Viva Maria! (1965, starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau), to films about various branches of rock, pop and techno music such as Je vous aime (1980, featuring Serge Gainsbourg, plus Gérard Depardieu as a punk rocker), Paroles et musique (Love Songs, 1984, which, like the previous film, is a vehicle for Catherine Deneuve), Olivier Assayas’ debut feature Désordre (Confusion, 1986) and Thierry Jousse’s Les Invisibles (Invisible, 2005). Since the ‘80s, figures including Assayas and Jousse have started out by making music videos or related shorts on musical subjects, as well as writing prolifically as critics in popular magazines such as Cahiers du cinéma, Rock and Folk or Les Inrockuptibles about the music-film relationship.


Realistic musicals are still being made in France, but the most striking contribution that this nation has made to the international evolution of the genre has been in the quite opposite direction of what can be called the modernist musical. The figure most associated with this movement is Jacques Demy (1931-1990), who made seven musicals between 1964 and 1988. However, the film that inaugurated this phase of experimentation is by the eternal iconoclast of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), Jean-Luc Godard, with his Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961). Here, Godard lays bare several principles of the modernist musical: include only fragments of songs, in a violent sound mix that sometimes removes either the vocal line or the musical accompaniment; provide only clumsy, amateurish or non-existent dance choreography; brutally alternate the heavily-marked ‘wish fulfilment’ fantasy expressed by the songs with the tawdry realism of everyday, suburban life. Une femme est une femme is less a musical per se than an analytical essay on, or critique of, the genre and what it stands for. As Godard made clear in his pronouncements of the time, the musical was for him a dead genre, at best a melancholic object of nostalgia – and hence ripe for attack. Godard would echo this first assault in sections of Pierrot le fou (1965) and his fractured episode of the opera film Aria (1987), as well as in the studio-recording segments devoted to yé-yé star Chantal Goya in Masculin Féminin (1966), The Rolling Stones in One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) and Les Rita Mitsuko in Soigne ta droite (Keep Up Your Right, 1987).


Demy, a less provocative figure than Godard, genuinely sought a way to continue the tradition of film musicals that he loved. He took the path not of minimalist subtraction but of excess: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) is completely sung, a non-stop musical, even down to the most ordinary, banal moments of its story; Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967, with a cameo by Gene Kelly) presents an enchanted town where singing and dancing appear to constantly overrun the limits of shots and scenes, connecting everything by rhythm or musical motif; and Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin, 1970) unfolds in a garish, deliberately anachronistic fairy-tale world. Not all of Demy’s musical experiments were so successful – Lady Oscar (1979) and Parking (1985) are not fondly remembered by many – but Une Chambre en ville (A Room in Town, 1982) and his final live-action feature, Trois places pour le 26 (Three Places for the 26th, 1988) reveal the most enduring modernist aspect of Demy’s legacy (beyond the stardom he helped create for Deneuve) – his willingness to expand the subject-repertoire of the genre to include contentious, somber issues, such as a factory workers’ strike in the former, and father-daughter incest in the latter.


Since the 1990s, the modernist French musical mixed this freedom in terms of subject matter with a playful sense of avowed artifice in relation to the staging of song and dance. Many of Chantal Akerman’s highly lyrical films, such as Nuit et jour (Night and Day, 1991) or the comedies Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996) and Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004), are based around repeated acts of singing, playing, moving or listening to music, often in a manner that exaggerates the everyday realism of such behaviour. She tackled the musical genre head-on in Golden Eighties (1986), a bittersweet tale of intersecting lives in a shopping centre, which pays fulsome homage to Demy; and she also made a more experimental piece, Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983), documenting auditions, trial scenes and the demo-recording of songs for the project.


Alain Resnais, an aficionado of stage and screen musicals since his youth, gave notice, in the score he commissioned from Stephen Sondheim for Stavisky … (1974) and the delicate weaving of several songs into La Vie est un roman (Life is a Bed of Roses, 1983), that he would one day launch himself fully into the genre with On connaît la chanson (Same Old Song, 1997) and Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Lips, 2003). In the former, a story of approaching old age, illness and death is constantly interrupted by cast members lip-synching classics spanning nearly a century of French popular song; in the latter, a saucy, bourgeois operetta of 1925 by André Barde and Maurice Yvain is presented virtually unchanged, but carrying a disquieting, ghostly air.


Where Resnais’s work, like Demy’s, has a seductive technical polish, the Godardian element of deliberate, often charming amateurism returns to the fore in Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's Jeanne et le garçon formidable (Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, 1998), a musical about AIDS, and their subsquent, lighter work Crustacés et coquillages (Côte d’Azur, 2005); in Paul Vecchiali’s eccentric, very low-budget À vot’ bon cœur (2004), a satire on the French filmmaking scene; and particularly in Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (Up Down Fragile, 1995). Here, Rivette mixes a complex conspiracy-plot typical of his previous work with a light-hearted look at three young women, each on some kind of personal quest; the musical scenes are delayed (the first comes almost an hour in) or attenuated, and Rivette revels in both long-takes for the dancing and direct sound recording for the singing. The film is a model modernist musical, as entertaining as it is experimental.


François Ozon takes a more camp, if no less loving, approach to the genre in a memorable disco segment of his adaptation of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder play, Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 2000) and especially in 8 Femmes (8 Women, 2002), a star-studded affair in which a parodically melodramatic ‘whodunit’ plot regularly makes way for musical numbers derived mainly from French television variety shows of the past. The presence once more of Deneuve, here as in Lars von Trier’s Scandinavian/European co-produced musical about capital punishment, Dancer in the Dark (2000), cements her status as the veritable icon of the modern French musical – for she manages to effortlessly provide a mixture of Hollywood-style glamour, art-film earthiness, kookiness and daring that perfectly sums up France’s distinctive contribution to the musical genre.



Note: This survey was commissioned for an Encyclopedia of Popular Music in 2006; an updated version is slated to appear in print in 2022 or 2023.


© Adrian Martin 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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