Interview with Joann Sfar on The Rabbi’s Cat (2011)

The only person I love more than Brel and Gainsbourg is Joann Sfar, a French comic artist whose mother was an Ashkenazi Jew from the Ukraine and whose father a Sephardic Jew from Algeria. My favorite comic of his is The Rabbi’s Cat. It’s a warm, critical, wry look at religious and racial issues in Algiers in the 1920s. Here’s a panel. Just look at how he draws that cat. Tell me this isn’t the most true and hilarious representation of a cat you’ve ever seen:

chat_du_rabbin-T1p15s

 

Sfar’s done a couple movies, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life in 2010 (?) and a film adaptation of The Rabbi’s Cat in 2011. I wanted to like the movie more than I did. This isn’t a review of the movie, but basically my issue was that I did not like most of the voice actors. Especially Zlabya’s and occasionally the Cat’s. I just… I just couldn’t. Zlabya sounded like a random girl they pulled off the street and the Cat got pretty slapstick screechy at times. I don’t know. I just couldn’t deal with the voices. The animation is so phenomenally beautiful and suffused with warmth and light that I am even more frustrated that I can’t watch the movie all the way through. (But here’s the trailer! What kills me every time in the comic and the movies is the Cat’s line: “I will never be alone because my mistress will die before me.” Chokes me up. Every. Damn. Time.)

Anyway, what’s interesting about the movie is Joann Sfar himself. He’s a handsome, charming, intellectual-type who wears Pantera t-shirts. (I have a weakness for Frenchmen in Pantera and NIN t-shirts. Don’t ask me why.) Here’s an interview I found with him on the internets about the movie and his family and his work:

Joann Sfar: “I love Arabs and Jews, but I could care less about religion.”

Télérama’s Cinema Wednesday | To defuse the relations between Whites, Blacks, Jews, and Muslims, the author of The Rabbi’s Cat, who is bringing his own comic to the big screen, relies on his hero’s Voltairian mischief.

[June 4, 2011]

It’s the story of a cat during the 1920s who swallows a parrot. Suddenly he can talk (a lot) and wants to (even more) have his bar mitsvah. God shudders and readers are eager; they devoured The Rabbi’s Cat (900,000 copies sold in five volumes, in nine years). It has been a triumph for his “master”, Joann Sfar, who was crushed under the weight of the offers to adapt his comic. He refused seven before deciding to bring it to the screen himself, his caustic, novelistic, shimmering epic, from the casbah in Alger to the heart of the African desert. With the help of his partner, Sandrina Jardel, who wrote the screenplay, and Antoine Delesvaux, who directed, Sfar delivers an animated film which seems to resemble its maker: original and incredibly productive. Barely 40 years old Joann Sfar drew, painted, and wrote more works than three times his age: more than 150 volumes, novels, artbooks, philosophical commentaries (he has a Master’s in philosophy from the university in Nice). His first feature-length film, with real actors (and one marionnette), was released a year ago. Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life), the phantasmagorical biopic of the Man with the Cabbage Head [i.e. Serge Gainsbourg], received the César for the best début film, When does he sleep? Do we have any right to be jealous of him? It’s a meeting with a self-confessed “liar”, a storyteller, crazy about culture and undoubtably less so about religion; Sfar is as chatty, charming and biting as his irreverent feline…

Is it true that you were inspired by your own pet to draw The Rabbi’s Cat?

Sfar: Yes, he’s my “real” cat! His name is Imhotep, like the architect of the pyramids. In fact, he’s not alone: I have three cats, a dog… and two children! Anyway, my wife says I’m a hypocrit because I never pay attention to him except for when the journalists come; I pose with “the Rabbi’s cat”! During our prepwork for the animation, we filmed him for hours, with his devil-may-care attitude, and his narcissism… He really was Voltaire’s Candide, and I that’s what I wanted for my story.

The film relies on a unique technique: you began by filming “real” actors, so you could draw them afterward…

There was, in fact, a “real” shoot for a month. At the beginning of the project, I was extremely anxious. It was the actors who reassured me. With them, the storytelling impetus seemed very simple: as soon as they arrived, in make-up and costumes, I remembered my childhood memories of Molière; Hafsia Herzi, who plays Zlabya, the cat’s mistress, is the young girl to be married in classical theater. Her father the rabbi, Maurice Bénichou, could be found in Tartuffe, but more tender. As for François Morel, we met him during a reading of The Little Prince. He did all the voices, especially the fox’s: super seductive, kind of a jerk, egotistical… No one could have done a better job than him, giving the cat a voice, a true valet of Molière, a Scapin or a Sganarelle. After, I chose to make an animated film and not a “live” movie, because I wanted there to be a homogeneity between the cat and the other characters. I didn’t want to make him the only one to be animated, and so everything had to be animated.

Why choose to do it in 3D?

It wasn’t to make it more realistic. On the contrary, I was looking for a “paper cut-out” quality that allowed me to forefront what I wanted to in the story: the cat, the décor… The result was images tender and colorful, evoking a bit of Matisse, and others. And then the 3D aspect let me reach kids, and families. If someone had told me that I made a high-brow feature-length film for adults, I would be extremely disappointed.

Is this story, full of imams, rabbis, and theological debates, a parable about religion?

To be honest, I made the comic for personal and egotistical reasons, without the least intention of moralizing. But it’s been 10 years since then, during which I toured with the comic in the ZEPs [zones of educational priority, i.e. underprivileged areas], in the middle and high schools. This allowed me to measure the book’s effects. One day, a little girl said to me, “We didn’t want to read your book, but in the end, we really liked it, because we saw that Jews and Arabs were equally dumb.” This was exactly what I wanted: to defuse the relationship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians… When I began the prepwork for the animated film, I had become very conscious of this pedagogical dimension. It caused me a lot of grief, because “messages” can really weigh a film down, even blow it apart. For example, when the old imam looks straight at the viewer and says “Our God does not hate. He loves science.” It’s too direct, but I couldn’t leave the least ambiguity, I could risk to not be understood on the matter. A few days ago, while we were filming promos for the film, I blurted out: “We had to stop pretending that religion is sacred.” Brassens said that we have to criticize the uniforms, but not the people who wear them. I adore Arabs, Jews, but religion pisses me off.

It must have upset some people…

It hasn’t shocked anyone in the theaters yet! I even saw some ultra-orthodox people laughing their heads off. What I’ve tried to show is that, in both Jewish and Muslim families, there’s a lot of joking around on the issue than people imagine. My criticism comes from the inside [of this space] because I am myself Jewish.

You’ve set the beginning of your story in Algeria, where part of your family is from…

I chose the Maghreb in particular because it’s neither a Promised Land nor a land of nostalgia. It was the same mixing, the same mess, sixty years ago as it is today. This observation allowed me to be pragmatic. True political courage today means refusing to debate ideas and to crowd in together with everyone. Before having a debate on secularism, we eat together. My Ideal Republic would be [the city of] Nice, where I grew up; we were all shoved in together: Whites, Blacks, Jews, Muslims, and we were exposed to the most horrible racism in the world, but it never occurred to us to stop hanging out together!

Nevertheless, your attitude toward colonialism [in the film] is unambigious, through the parody of Tintin…

Three weeks from the release of the film, my friends were worried about my noggin, not because of the Islamists, but because of Hergé’s copyright holders. The fear wasn’t necessarily where they thought it was! I learned to read through Tintin, and I have a lot of affection for him. I hope that people sense that. It’s not the character that’s the issue in the film, it’s the dominant zeitgeist of the 1930s: the way people arrived in Africa saying the stupidest things imaginable. Tintin’s been making fun of Blacks and Jews for sixty years. If I can, for a few seconds, turn it around on him, we’ll survive.

This “African Jerusalem” that your heroes are searching for in the desert–is that a reference to Zionism?

I’m not one of those either/or people about questions like this. If I were in Israel, I would doubtlessly be on the extreme left. On the other hand, I have trouble understanding why people condemn it here. The creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War was an acknowledgment that Europe had failed to protect the Jews. I have a great deal of affection for the peoples who live there–I visit often. It’s a very complex place, like many other corners of the world. But the quest that my characters undertake is above all a reflection on one’s roots, and on the illusion that everything used to be better. The Promised Land of the future, or of the Golden Age in the past, I could care less about. Only the present interests me.

As you started the adaptation, you said: “At least if the film is a failure, it will be my fault!” Now that it’s over, what do you think of the movie?

It’s full of mistakes! Like the comic, like Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life)… But I like trying things that are unedited, that I haven’t mastered yet. It’s the clumsiness that’s moving. The weak part of my stories is always their structure. They have something organic, diluted… As much as I have the feeling with my books that I’ve opened a wound that reminds me of me, I’m not absolutely sure my movies are interesting. I have no regrets. I almost want to have four or five [movies] behind me so that I can see it a little more clearly.

They say you always have a thousand irons in the fire at the same time. What makes you so prolific?

My anxiety. I’m incapable of assessing myself: I vacillate a thousand times a day between moments of extreme pretentiousness and moments of absolute deprecation. I have a Scheherazade Complex: I earn my living writing and if I stop, they’ll cut off my head. I’m perpetually dissatisfied with the work I’ve just finished, and that drives me to want the next one, and the next, and the next. Most of all I don’t want to fall into a caricature of myself. About that, for example, I’m in the middle of finishing a sort of semi-pornographic Foto-novela for Dargaud [Publishing company], with ska chicks and huge tigers fighting each other. People say often that I’m a dabbler, but it’s not true! As proof, there are certain areas where I don’t really adventure, like music. I play the ukulele for fun, with my friend, but I harbor no illusions! I’ve never really done anything beside tell stories!

What’s the status on this famous “New Comics” which you helped create in the 90s?

I don’t like that term. It sound like the New Wave [of cinema], which is nothing like us at all! But it’s true that there is a generational effect with the arrival of Christophe Blain, Marjane Satrapi, Lewis Trondheim, David B., and it’s true that we worked in the same studio, that we brought a slightly new style and taste [to comics]. But that doesn’t make us an “art school”! We’re too individualistic, to different. Even when we collaborate on comics, it’s just for fun, not to write manifests. We never claimed to be “alternative.” Or at least I haven’t. I’ve just asked that comics be taken as seriously as literature. At it has been, because now we have the same diseases as literature: over-production, a lack of critique… At the moment, Comics aren’t doing very well– the big publishers have lost a part of their identity, independent publishers are killing themselves by cutting off the branches that are the best growers…

You’re directing the BD Bayou line at Gallimard Youth [a brance of Gallimard Publishing]. And, as if you weren’t busy enough, you’ve just designed the exposition on [Georges] Brassens at the Cité de la Musique [a group of institutions dedicated to music in the 19th district in Paris]…

I dressed up as Brassens in Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life) and, in order to do that, I had to get permission from his estate. So when someone proposed the exposition to them, they said, “Ask that schmuck over there to do it!” It was a lot of fun to do, inasmuch as if Gainsbourg is a poet who fascinates me, Brassens is a kind of mentor. His vision of life suits me.

His influence is apparent in your work. What’s the influence your family has had?

My mother was a pop singer, and she died when I was very young. So I grew up between two dominant men, my maternal grandfather, and my father, who had very oppositional views on existence. My grandfather’s whole Jewish-Ukranian family was deported. During the war, he was the doctor for the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade. His crowning achievement was having saved the right hand of André Malraux, who, in thanks, awarded him French nationality. He was a very cultivated, very caustic fellow, who had done rabbinical studies when he was young, but became totally anti-clerical. The only things that interested him in existence were love, science, and literature. When I was little, he used to say something I really liked: “When you see all that’s happened, either God doesn’t exist or he’s a rotten bastard.” My devil-may-care attitude I get from him.

And your father?

He’s a Mediterranean Jew, very handsome, an excellent pianist, a champion water skiier, a brilliant lawyer in Nice, but now retired. A Casanova, but at the same time, a very traditional man, very attached to religion. His claim to fame is having been the first to put the Neo-Nazis in prison in the 70s. What I got out of that was, in 5th grade, having to walk to school between two gendarmes [regional soldiers], because my class was vandalized by people who wanted to intimidate him. They called us in the middle of the night, they sent us coffins… It didn’t faze him at all.

When I was 13, on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, I was attacked and robbed in the street. My father yelled at me because I hadn’t been able to fight off my attackers, and my grandfather congratulated me on not having taken any risks. That sums up a lot of things about my childhood. I loved them both equally, but I have never chosen between irony and a punch to the face. I’m capable of doing both.

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Jacques Brel, “Amsterdam” (1966)

Jacques Brel was my first French celebrity crush. I feel absolutely certain that the easiest way to learn a foreign language is to fall in love with a native speaker. I don’t mean necessarily that you should actually, physically, be in a relationship with a native speaker, but that learning becomes much easier when you have a human being to focus on. I was pretty scattershot in my French-language learning until one of my French teachers played “Don’t Leave Me” for us one day in 2003. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, but I remember five things about that class. 1.) “Don’t Leave Me”; 2.) Donc (“Therefore”) is infinitely superior to alors (“So”); 3.) Always ceci (the formal form of “this”) and never ça (the informal form of “this”); 4.) Patrick Bruel’s “My Lover From Saint-Jean”; and 5.) Marcel Pagnol’s film “Marius”, which is basically the greatest trilogy ever made (sorry Star Wars). Now, to go back to “Don’t Leave Me.” I felt back then that it was probably the most blatantly emotionally-manipulative song that I’ve ever heard. It didn’t move me as much as it was supposed to, but I was curious enough about this singer who was not afraid to lay himself bare to the world. Since then, I’ve been slowly collecting every song that he’s ever recorded. Brel has been enormously influential in my life. Or at least he’s made enough songs that have reflected my innermost thoughts that I feel close to him, philosophically. I’ve spent my life full of fear and anxiety, and it really wasn’t until I saw an interview with him (here’s the excerpt), in which he talked about how he’s afraid all the time, that I really felt empowered to just get on with my life. To keep going, to do what you’ve got to do. In “Amsterdam”, he’s so full of energy, charisma, and passion, that it’s incredibly seductive. I find it extremely compelling to watch him singing his heart out, knowing that he probably just barfed up his dinner backstage. That’s life. You barf, and then keep going.

I guess I should mention that I heard “Amsterdam” when I was in France while I was eating moules frites with my homestay mother. We were in Brest, a very old port town in Brittany, on the west coast. The mists were heavy, men were wearing wool sweaters, and there was a dog wandering through the restaurant. The radio was playing, and suddenly I recognized Brel on the radio, singing this song. My homestay mother was a 68-year-old Bretonne, a native of the region. Bretons are known as a very proud, private, and independent people. Mostly sailors and fisherman. When I got really excited about “Amsterdam” on the radio, my homestay mother basically dismissed Brel entirely, with a single wave of her hand, saying bitterly, “He stole the song from the sailors. It was a sailor’s song first.” I’m not sure how true that is, but Wikipedia claims Brel’s song is a slight adaptation of the song Greensleeves, a traditional English folk song. I’d have to do more research to see if her bias is true or not, but I speculate the song has been around the block, if you know what I mean.

Brel’s only performace of “Amsterdam” on YouTube.

(David Bowie did a cover, which is infinitely inferior: here it is, if you really want to listen to it.)

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors singing
About the dreams that haunt them
On the open waters of Amsterdam
In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors sleeping
Like drooping banners
Along the somber shores

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors dying
Full of beer and dramas
In the early hours
But in Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors being born
In the thick heat
Of the oceanic langour

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors eating
On too-white tableclothes
Shimmering fish
They show off their teeth
They use to chew fortune,
to pare down the moon,
to gobble down the shrouds.

It reeks of cod
All the way into the fries,
Which their fat hands invite
To come back again in greater number
Then they stand up, laughing,
In a storm-like racket,
Zip up their flies
And leave, belching

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors dancing
Rubbing their paunches
Against women’s paunches
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
And they turn and dance,
The spitting image of suns

In the torn silence
Of a rancid accordion
They twist their heads
To hear themselves laughing
Until, suddenly,
The accordion gives out
Then a grave gesture,
A proud look.
They take their women
Out into the light.

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors drinking
Who drink and drink some more
And then even more
They lift a glass to the health
Of Amsterdam’s whores,
Of Hamburg’s, and other places
Finally they lift a glass to the ladies
Who gave their beautiful bodies to them,
Who gave their virtue to them

And for one gold piece
And when they’ve had enough to drink,
Point their noses to the sky
And blow their nose in the stars
And they piss as I cry
Over the treacherous women
In Amsterdam’s port

Noir Désir, “Europe” (2001)

If Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” fucked Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinatory gonzo journalism, it would give birth to Noir Désir’s song “Europe,” a 23-minute full-on freak out lament/dirge for Europe in the age of the EU. Half the time I was translating the lyrics, I was completely bewildered. But that’s kind of the charm of the song. I did my best with the lyrics, but I really think I screwed it up in some places. It was pointed out to me today that I don’t often give myself permission to make mistakes, especially in my creative endeavors. I don’t produce much, in the ways of drawing and creative writing, so each piece becomes overly-dear to me. I guess that’s what this blog has helped with. Pure production. I had a drawing teacher once who said, “90% of what you will produce will be crap. You have to get through that 90% to make it to the 10% that makes drawing worth it.” Rather than being discouraged by that remark, I felt freed. I was like, Well, if I’m going to produce 90% crap, that’s just statistics. I don’t need to get all tore up about every little drawing I do when it doesn’t turn out perfect. I’ll eventually get to that awesome 10%. And so here I am, producing my 90% of crap.

Europe on YouTube.

The bloodhounds are loose.
I repeat:
The bloodhounds are loose.

The small business owners are making diamond necklaces.
Twice.

Europe’s roses are a feast for Satan.
I repeat:
Europe’s roses are a feast for Satan.

We are now working for Europe. (x4)
Nay, for the world.

Dear old Europe, dear old continent, authoritative whore,
aristocrat and libertine, bourgeois and laborer,
all flushed and decorated with grand centuries and stumbling giants.
Look at your hunched shoulders, with no way to dust off with a brush of your hand,
a single brush, the old dust, yesterday’s dead skin and tabula rasa…

From here it’s easy to believe there’s noble decrepitude in the air.
It’s still hanging in the air, in this sulfurous stench. Filthy old Europe,
who, between the Wars and even during, rubbed the bellies of far away countries
for its own benefit, and, dick in hand, sprayed its sperm on the native’s genitals.
Can we get back up after that? We can get back up after anything, even endless falls.
We were able to climb, we were able to descend, we can stop
and pick ourselves back up…
Europe of the Enlightenment, or of the Dark Ages;
Hardly any fireflies in the theaters of shadow.
Hardly a spark in the night that takes hold and then begins again,
And then the new dawn, after the crimes of childhood,
the mistakes of youth, we no longer tear the wings off golden dragonflies.

We’re now working for Europe.
Nay, for the world.
Amnesty, amnesty or maybe amnesia, what do you want that to matter,
we have to keep moving forward, no matter what, push your comrades on faster,
and then produce, produce, there’s always something moving!
Materialistic, then that means at least we’re sure we’re not wrong
and we’re sure of what’s tangible until it gives us indigestion, we’re sure of what’s rational,
until we die from it, we’re sure of implacable logic and never of meaning…
Hey, Princess of History on her forced march,
We’ll get lost passing through her centuries-old arches.

Nay, the world.
We’re now working for Europe.

We’ve gone past your bygone mysteries, gone past your bygone mysteries,
We’ve gone past your bygone mysteries, and reached the technocrat’s charms…
Oh Europe, oh Europe, oh Europe.
Brussels, Schengen, Strasbourg, Maastricht, GDP, GDP, EEC, Euratom, OECD, GATT*

[*Translation Note: These cities all have a connection with the European Union: Brussels (Belgium) is the de facto capital; Schengen (Luxembourg) is where the Schengen Agreement was signed, abolishing border control among many European countries; Strasbourg (France) is the seat of the parliament of the EU; Maastricht (Netherlands) is the city where the European Union and its currency, the Euro, were born.

GDP = Gross Domestic Product
EEC = European Economic Community, renamed the European Community after the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union
Euratom = European Atomic Energy Commmittee (nuclear energy developers/distributors, governed by the EU)
OECD = Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, forum of European countries dedicated to democracy and market economies
GATT = General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, multilateral agreement regulating international trade]

Protect us and our market from this MAI common to a too-small world.
The only Eurocurrency, NASDAQ and CAC40, orgiastic, idyllic, made of poetry,
Support culture, produce spectacles and entertainment
Like our brothers across the Atlantic say and knock, knock old Europeans,
new masters of the world, while the Asian dragon dreams, does his stretches,
he is beautiful and powerful, gently spitting fire.

*MAI = Multilateral Agreement on Investment; CAC40 = The French equivalent of the NASDAQ.

Meanwhile, Ernest-Antoine Seillière* appears on the scene and declares his love for us.
He loves us and tells us:
“We are not like politicians, who fold under the pressure of the people on the street.”
And we hear in the distance the din of the crowd,
the beautiful movements of the many, the glorious parade, and then the class warfare.

*Seillière: President of the MEDEF (Mouvement des Entreprises de France, the largest union of employers in France; served from 1997-2005)

And now it’s for real, oh baby, it’s for real, we don’t believe in anything anymore,
We concoct this business and basta, we’re not on Pegasus’ back.
That was just to feel ecstatic, and it’s over.
Extension, expansion if it’s possible, but there’s no dream for us to carry,
Only the dynamics.
First the money, baby, and the rest will follow, and the rest will come,
That’s what they say.
I believe in the past era, blessed by the world-eaters.
Dear old Europe, you don’t know your head from your legs, which often
don’t recognize your arms, how does it keep going?
How does a strange body move to its body; we don’t know and we don’t care
We embrace each other anyway and then we’re right.
Filthy old Europe, do you remember, the violent brutality, the moody East,
burning war, cold war, and finally the weary war, the weary war.

We’re now working for Europe.

You wanted them and now you’ve got them, schools for work performance, and now you have bosses,
Creators of the Global Business Dialogue or Electronic Commerce
To sit, clucking about all the anomalies to come from this cultural whatchamacallit

Histories of producers and consumers, from the producer to the consumer,
from the producer to the consumer, and the intermediaries who don’t care,
your whole soul is worn our on this endless path and on all this coming and going, we’re going,
Us too, profit, no reason, after all it’ll be okay,
We won’t have enough for everyone, there’ll be some for everyone,
We said for everyone, for everyone, for everyone, my ass!

How high are you going to raise your ramparts?
Where are you going to rebuild your new defensive walls?

Something is stuck in our throat and we want to spit it up,
It’s not much, but you may, madam,
Speak to us, for not all is lost, no, not all is lost
of your myths of dawn, here the sun shines for everyone and we believe in it.

We are now working for Europe.
Nay, for the world.

Something is stuck in our throat and we want to spit it up,
It’s not much, but you may, madam,
Speak to us, for not all is lost, no, not all is lost
of your myths of dawn, here the sun shines for everyone and we believe in it.

The herpes on your faces
I repeat:
The herpes on your face.
The sighs of the saint and the cries of the fairy
are no longer heard at the banquet of bankers.
Once.
The hermit’s cooking pot is overflowing with rubies.
I repeat:
The hermit’s cooking pot is overflowing with rubies.

Old Europe is the madam of the pink processions.
Twice.
When the sirens are quiet, the birds of prey cry.
The red and black of the tortures are the Flowers of Evil*
I repeat:
The red and black of the tortures are the Flowers of Evil

*Flowers of Evil: Charles Baudelaire’s famous collection of poems; the red and black colors typically signify the dual power of the Army and the Clergy. See: Stendhal’s novel, The Red and The Black.

The West’s day is the East’s night.
Twice,
The West’s day is the East’s night.

I’m no jingoist, but France is the queen of cheeses.
Cuthbert Calculus* is a fool.
Six times.
The blood spilt is tea for the giants at the fair.
Twice.

*Cuthbert Calculus: Tryphon Tournesol, a character in the incredibly popular French comic, Tintin.

It’s raining cats and dogs on the Concorde.
It’s raining cats and dogs on the Concorde.
Underage models are Europe’s elected representatives.
I repeat:
Underage models are Europe’s elected representatives.

Fuck certainty.
Twice.
The bigwigs’ insanity is killing the mockingbirds.
I repeat:
The bigwigs’ insanity is killing the mockingbirds.
If you can’t find anything, look for something else.

Peace in Switzerland.
I repeat:
Peace in Switzerland.
The weddings of blood are burning the horizon.
Twice.
Europe’s mascara is running on the breast plates.
Twice.

Life begins now– and now– and now.

Europe is a little, mortal goddess.
Twice.

Art’s infancy is a sunrise.
I repeat:
Art’s infancy is a sunrise.

We’re now working for Europe…

Serge Gainsbourg, “Melody’s Waltz” (1971), “The Ballad of Melody Nelson” (1971); Jane Birkin, “Melody’s Waltz” (2002)

The apex of Serge Gainsbourg’s discography is widely recognized to be Melody Nelson (1971), a short, 28-minute narrative album that tells the Lolita-esque story of a short-lived and tragic relationship between a 15-year old English gamine and an older French man. Serge sings the male part and his then-wife Jane Birkin sang the part of Melody Nelson. The most wonderful thing to come out of this album was the amazingly weird and outstandingly 70s 28-minute short film/very long music video, directed by Jean-Christophe Avery (it’s on YouTube: The Story of Melody Nelson!) If you want to know more about the album, there’s a nice review of it on PopMatters.

Anyway, for the most part, whenever Serge made an album with a girlfriend or wife, it was the most awkward thing ever because they were not very good singers. I really struggle to listen to anything he made with Brigitte Bardot (plus the fact that she’s a crazy-ass bigot these days). It makes me want to stab my ears. When she was first starting out singing with Serge, she did this weak, breathy, pitchy thing with her voice that is like nails on the chalkboard to me (see: their most [in]famous duet, I Love You… Me Neither). Over the years she’s gotten less annoying. All this to say, the cover she does of “Melody’s Waltz” on her album Arabesque is absolutely top-notch and stunning. How do you turn a minute-and-a-half song into a six-minute song? You completely re-contextualize it. I’m not really a music critic, but I’ll quote one, who can explain what Birkin does with Gainsbourg in her album:

Arabesque, which is finally available in America, is singer and actress Birkin’s tribute to the music of the late Serge Gainsbourg, her mentor, late (and ex) husband, and producer. Recorded in March 2002 at the Olympia Theater in Paris, Arabesque puts the music of Gainsbourg, one of France’s most unlikely and beloved national heroes, into an altogether different context: North African folk music as it meets new age exotica. And does it ever work. With a quintet of Arabic musicians backing her, Birkin uses her austere French to give new utterance and meaning to Gainsbourg’s tunes […]. “Valse de Melody” (Melody’s Waltz) is full of arid and prayerful intonations by Memouen before Birkin enters to sing backup on this gorgeous song of desolation and mourning. Birkin’s radical reworking of these songs would no doubt have pleased Gainsbourg, because she infuses them with the soul of an innocent who longs to be a rake, and one who understands implicitly their worth as both pop songs and works of erotic and necessary poetry. (Thom Jurek’s review on AllMusic)

Melody’s Waltz (Gainsbourg’s version): YouTube
Melody’s Waltz (Jane Birkin cover, 2002): YouTube

Sunshine is rare
And so is happiness
Love goes astray
Your whole life

Sunshine is rare
And so is happiness
But everything changes
In Melody’s arms

The ramparts
Of the labyrinth
Half-open to
Infinity

The Ballad of Melody Nelson: YouTube

This is the story
Of Melody Nelson–
I was the only person
To ever take her into my arms.
That may surprise you,
But it’s true.

She had enough love to go around,
Poor Melody Nelson.
Yeah, she had a ton of it.
But her days were numbered.
Fourteen autumns
And fifteen summers.

She was a little animal,
Melody Nelson,
An adorable tomboy.
So deliciously childish,
I knew her body for only a moment.

Oh! My melody,
My Melody Nelson,
Darling little bitch,
You were the condition
Sine qua non
Of my sanity.

Edith Piaf, “My Legionnaire” (1937); Serge Gainsbourg, “My Legionnaire” (1987)

“My Legionnaire” was originally written in 1936 by Raymond Asso and Marguerite Monnot, and recorded by Marie Dubas in 1936. Edith Piaf picked it up in 1937 and incorporated it into her repertoire. It was, I believe, her earliest big hit. It’s a pretty lovely song about a woman’s one night stand with a French Foreign Legion solider, whose name she never learns. The French Foreign Legion was originally formed in the late 19th century, unique for the fact that all of its soldiers were foreign nationals, led by French commanders. They have played a part in almost all of the wars France has been involved in since then, and they were particularly instrumental in protecting France’s colonial interest in Africa. The legion’s “spiritual home” and base was in Algeria, where it was particularly involved from the conquest of Algeria in the 1830s and 40s to the traumatic Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s. The Foreign Legion nowadays is considered an “elite” group of soldiers, since they receive very rigorous military training as well as intercultural training (due to the mixed nature of the legion). Nevertheless, the Foreign Legion is popularly imagined as being full of scoundrels, men who leave their wives to start “a new life,” and vagabonds. This is the image that Piaf touches on in her song: the Legionnaire as a tough, solitary, nomadic sort of man. The kind that leaves you with a broken heart.

When Serge Gainsbourg covered it for his album “You’re Under Arrest” in 1987, he did an amazing job. Gainsbourg spent his career thumbing his nose at authority figures, being deliberately provocative (sometimes in extremely poor taste, like his duet with his daughter Charlotte, “Lemon Incest”). He was the kind of artist who was provocative just to be provocative. “For me, provocation is oxygen,” he said once. The subversiveness and shock of his version of “My Legionnaire” comes from the fact that he sings the song perfectly straight (no pun intended), which gives it a distinct homoerotic tone. The lyrics are such that they can be sung by a man or woman without changing a single word. Even though the French language has masculine/feminine gender (and so men and women will speak slightly differently), the lyrics (as sung) are wonderfully ambiguous. Since the song spends so much time describing the legionnaire, there’s hardly a reference to the legionnaire’s lover. The only place the gender of the legionnaire’s lover is revealed is the line, “He loved me through the night” (Il m’a aimée toute la nuit), where aimée (loved) shows that it is referring to a feminine direct object (i.e. the “me” is feminine). If the “me” were male, it would read aimé. But the fun in this is that both are pronounced the same. It’s a distinction that can be only seen in writing.

The homoeroticism in Gainsbourg’s version is deeply subversive. Let’s assume the image of a soldier is a nationalist symbol of masculinity/nationalism/violence, of the French establishment. Add to that, Edith Piaf herself in 1987 was definitely part of the French establishment, of the national image. By covering “My Legionnaire” and giving it a distinctly homoerotic spin, Gainsbourg is subverting nationalist rhetorics of gender/sexuality. Nationalist rhetorics in the Western world, especially at times of empire and colonialism, have often been expressed through articulations of gender and sexuality. What I mean is, like Edward Said noted 40 years ago, the West imagines itself a masculine and the East as feminine, in order to justify and naturalize its domination. The French Foreign Legion was composed of a large number of Moroccans, Algerians, Syrians, etc., who have traditionally been considered “effeminate,” due to their “Eastern” origins. (North Africa has a long history of being a haven for Western gay men.) Oscar Wilde and André Gide slept their way through Algeria, William Burroughs met boys in Tangiers, etc. So there’s this image of the gay man in North Africa that Gainsbourg is playing with. The idea that the image of French nationalism is a gay man is hugely subversive, especially during the 1980s, a time when Gainsbourg’s reggae’d version of the national anthem was the cause of a military demonstration (and nearly a riot) at one of his concerts.

Anyway, this hasn’t been terribly coherent. But there it is.

Piaf’s Legionnaire: YouTube
Gainsbourg’s Legionnaire: YouTube

He had had big, bright eyes
That sometimes flashed bolts of lightning
Like storms passing across the sky
He was covered with tattoos
That I never quite understood
On his neck: “Unseen and untaken”
On his heart, it said: “No one”
On his right arm, one word: “Reason”.

{Refrain:}
I don’t know his name, I know nothing about him
He loved me through the night
My legionnaire!
Leaving me to my destiny,
He left in the morning
Full of light!
He was slim, he was handsome,
He smelled like hot sand
My legionnaire!

There was sunshine on his face,
Brightening his golden hair!

Happiness has gone, happiness has fled.
I always think about that night
I’m haunted by my desire for his skin
Sometimes I cry and then I wonder
If, when his head was on my heart,
I should have shouted my happiness to the heavens
But I didn’t dare say a word to him–
I was afraid to see him smile!

{Refrain}

They found him in the desert.
His beautiful eyes were open.
Clouds were passing across the sky.
He showed them his tattoos.
He smiled,
showing them his neck, and said: “Unseen and untaken.”
Showing them his heart, he said: “No one here.”
He had no idea… I forgive him.

Nevertheless, I dreamed that destiny
Would bring him back to me, one beautiful morning,
My legionnaire,
That together, all by ourselves, we would go
To some distant land
Full of light!

He was slim, he was handsome,
They buried him in the hot sand,
My legionnaire!

There was sunshine on his face,
Brightening his golden hair!