The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Entries for 'Aidan Curran'

04

The current CLUAS Gig of the Fortnight is the show on 6 October at The Joinery Gallery in Dublin by Thinguma*jigsaw, the Norwegian pair who came to Ireland for a while and ended up making a fairly dark and idiosyncratic kind of alt-folk. (Because that's what coming to live in Ireland does to some people.) They should be good in concert.

ArltAnd what has this to do with your Paris correspondent?

So Thinguma*jigsaw haven't any French links. But there are a few support acts on the night. First up is Limerick's hugely impressive Peter Delaney, followed by American troubadour Sport Murphy. Okay, no Frenchness so far.

But then you have a duo called Arlt (right). And Arlt are French. Her name is Eloise Decazes. But he calls himself Sing Sing and that's the kind of thing that usually has us edging towards the door.

Fortunately, their songs are better than his nom de rock. Arlt's brand of folk has a distinctive French feel to it - not just because they sing in their native language, but because Decazes croons and trills like she's in some smoky pre-war Parisian music hall. And their songs are a lot more melodic than the monotonous bobo-busking that passes for contemporary chanson française.

If you're one of these people who never bother seeing support acts and stay rooted in some nearby pub until five minutes before the main act, then you're almost as much an eejit as someone who calls themselves Sing Sing. Arlt are grand in their way, but Peter Delaney is really good and may very well steal the show. Go and hear.

Anyway, Arlt. They'll have an album out soon, but in the meantime you can check out their MySpace page for tunes and the like.

And if you want to see what you'll be giving up your pre-gig pint for, here they are in concert singing 'De Haut En Bas', which means 'from top to bottom':


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02

Do you remember how we were talking about Yann Tiersen and his soundtrack to 'Amélie' and another album of his called 'L'Absente' which was like a darker vision of the film music? You do.

And do you remember how we told you that Neil Hannon collaborated with Tiersen on 'Les Jours Tristes', which appeared on both albums? You do again. Haven't you a great memory?

Yann Tiersen and Neil Hannon Black SessionWell, it wasn't the first time that these two played together. Two years before 'Amélie', in 1999, Tiersen released a live album called 'Black Session' (right, with the bad album art). It was recorded at the Transmusicales festival in Rennes for a radio show on France Inter called 'C'est Lenoir', still the best music show on the French airwaves.

(The Black Sessions are the show's regular live concerts, usually staged and broadcast from the Radio France studios near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The title is a play on the name of the presenter, Bernard Lenoir, 'noir' being the French for 'black'. When the show invites an artist for an acoustic performance without an audience, the result is a White Session. You can hear past Black Sessions and White Sessions on the C'est Lenoir homepage.)

For this show Tiersen invited a variety of singers to join him, mostly French vocalists like Dominique A and Mathieu Boogaerts and (urgh!) Bertrand Cantat of Noir Désir. And Neil Hannon popped up too.

The Divine Comedy man sings two songs. First, he performs his own 'Geronimo' from the 'Promenade' album. Then, joined by a string quartet and with Tiersen on toy piano, Hannon sings David Bowie's 'Life On Mars'.

And here's the proof, below and at this link (as the embedded video seems a bit unstable). From the Transmusicales Festival in Rennes in 1999, broadcast on C'est Lenoir on France Inter and released on the album 'Black Session', here are Neil Hannon and Yann Tiersen with their version of 'Life On Mars':


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30

Here's a beautiful little tune that's also a bit mysterious and maybe even romantic. We shall explain:

There's a girl musician called Luna and a boy musician called Miras Manus. We don't know anything about Luna and only very little about Miras Manus: he's from Brittany and he has both a blog and a MySpace page. Both acts have featured on CQFD, the new bands community website run by leading French music/culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles. On Miras Manus' MySpace is a track called 'Quietly Burning', a rather glum bit of shoegazing indie. (His other tracks are electronic and more enjoyable.) So far so what, says you.

LunamiraWell, it seems that Luna and Miras Manus have joined forces and become Lunamira. We don't know if they've gone the whole hog and are actually doing kissing and holding and arguing about household cleaning yet. (They haven't: see Luna's comment below.) We haven't even found a picture of them, apart from their CQFD avatar (right). All we know is that they've recorded a track together - which happens to be a new version of 'Quietly Burning'.

And oh! The difference that Luna makes! Suddenly this dour, plodding demo becomes something dreamy and melodic and as romantic as its title. The drumming is tighter, the guitar chimes and a neat little bass riff comes in after around 45 seconds. The male voice (Miras Manus?) now sings like he's lifted up his head and seen the night sky for the first time. And a female voice (Luna?) joins him on the chorus, which now lifts off gently like a hot air balloon. The whole thing is understated and subtle, but very memorable indeed.

(If there isn't love happening, Lunamira, please excuse us for our overactive imagination.)

You can hear the excellent 'Quietly Burning' by Lunamira at their profile page on the CQFD site.


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26

Even if you don't read La Blogothèque you may be familiar with their series of Takeaway Shows - Vincent Moon's films of hip indie acts busking or playing impromptu concerts around Paris. The series has inspired variants around the world.

A quiet night in with Bon IverLately, though, the Takeaway Shows have lost their central concept of spontaneous public performance. This summer there have been sessions recorded backstage at festivals, an altogether more exclusive and controllable environment. And Moon seems to have jumped the shark by featuring Tom Jones in the latter's New York hotel room - the whole thing feels contrived and cynical.

Now La Blogothèque has come up with a new video series, Les Soirées de Poche (loosely translated as 'intimate/pocket-sized evenings'). Quite simply, the idea is to film indie artists playing for a few people in the home of an ordinary Paris person. (We're not sure how this person is chosen and we're a little cynical about how 'ordinary' he/she may be, but we'll let that pass for the moment.)

Where the Takeaway Shows have a hand-held DIY feel, Les Soirées de Poche have more serious production values. The concerts are carefully staged - the films have soft lighting, multiple cameras, perfect sound and lingering close-ups. Franco-German cultural channel Arte are involved, hence their logo in the top left corner of the videos.

So far the series has featured Bon Iver (right), Patrick Watson, Ron Sexsmith, Beirut and Herman Dune.

But here's our favourite to date: Andrew Bird and St Vincent together in the same punter's apartment. (The film is 30 minutes long and every second of that is enthralling.) Thanks to Lihan for telling us about it - Château French Letter is available for any future shows:

 


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25

Two of cinema's most famous female pin-ups were born only a week apart in September 1934, which means that each lady celebrates her 75th birthday around now.

Brigitte BardotSophia Loren hit the three-quarter-century last Sunday, 20 September. (We mentioned her recently on this blog because of 'Locomotion', the fantastic debut single from a Paris soul-pop band called The Sophia Lorenians.) And Brigitte Bardot (right) will clock up soixante-quinze on Monday 28 September.

One feels that Loren's legacy is more substantial that Bardot's. The Italian is an Oscar winner who proved her acting credentials in those iconic 1960s on-screen partnerships with Marcello Mastroianni in 'Marriage Italian Style' and 'Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow'. By contrast, Bardot's fame lies in her 1950s image as a sensual provocateur and sex symbol, like in 'Et Dieu Créa La Femme' and 'Le Mépris', but hardly as a great actress. (In this regard she has a lot in common with Marilyn Monroe.) Today she lives in semi-reclusion, having ended her film career in 1973.

What's more, Bardot's activities of recent years have metaphorically isolated her as much as her reclusive lifestyle. She is an outspoken and combative defender of animal rights, often breaking her reclusion to condemn countries like Canada and China for the hunting and killing of endangered animals. Her iconic status ensures that such statements still make the headlines.

More controversially, on a number of occasions she has been convicted for incitement to racial hatred, based on statements in articles and books where she complained about the increasing Muslim population of France. (Her current husband, Bernard d'Ormal, is a former adviser to Jean Marie Le Pen's far-right Front National party.)

Ironically, Bardot's reputation may get a boost from her musical career. We say 'ironically' because, quite simply, she can't sing. But her monotonous vocals have featured on some of the most influential pop singles ever made - her mid-'60s songs with or by Serge Gainsbourg. These records have received new attention lately thanks to the current collaboration between Scarlett Johannson and Pete Yorn, which both parties say is inspired by the Gainsbourg-Bardot double act.

Gainsbourg started writing singles for Bardot when she was appearing in her own 1960s variety show on French television. Some of the songs - like 'Harley Davidson' and 'Contact' - feature Bardot alone, her attitude and sex appeal compensating for her modest singing ability. Other songs, like 'Comic Strip', saw the great man share vocal duties with her. If these singles were any more Swinging Sixties they'd be dressed as Austin Powers.

Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg in 1967But the high-water-mark of their partnership was the 1968 album 'Bonnie And Clyde'. Inspired by/cashing in on the hit movie of the previous year, Gainsbourg and Bardot (left) cast themselves as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway's glamorous outlaws. The best-known song is the title track, which also appeared on Gainsbourg's other 1968 album, 'Initials B.B.' (That album's title track is also justly celebrated, but Bardot doesn't appear on it even if it's named for her.)

Even if you have no knowledge of or interest in French music, the song 'Bonnie And Clyde' should be recognisable to you. With its cold-blooded glamour and distinctive instrument parts, it has been covered, sampled and imitated on records and advertisement soundtracks. The acoustic guitar chord sequence, swarm-of-bees string arrangements and wobble-board backing vocals make for a twitchy, unstable mix of tension and eccentricity. It sounds like nothing else in pop music.

Gainsbourg recites each verse couplet like a bard glorifying a legendary hero, then croons the pre-chorus and chorus with defiant fatalism. Bardot, in acting jargon, gets less lines than her co-star - she doesn't appear until the middle of the second verse and by the second chorus her only contribution has been to say her character's name twice. But her entrance ("Bow-nee", she drawls) is a scene-stealer and her monotone perfectly suits the song's tone and theme. She gets a key line, "On pretend que nous tuons de sang-froid" ("They claim we kill in cold blood"), and delivers it with the jaded indifference that the lyric implies.

Here's the Scopitone video, where the pair play the eponymous fugitive bank robbers. It's clear here that the better singer is also the better actor: 


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21

Back in 2006 we had high praise for French singer-songer Emilie Simon. Her album of that year, 'Végétal', was a fine collection of understated and charming electro-pop - and we particularly loved her derrière-kicking single 'Fleur De Saison', a rare example of a brilliant French-language rock song (as distinct from an electro or pop song).

Emilie SimonBefore that, she made her breakthrough in France for her soundtrack to the original version of wintry nature documentary 'La Marche De L'Empereur', though her music wasn't used in the English version, 'March Of The Penguins'.

Simon (right) has just released her third studio album, 'The Big Machine', and it's quite good. While 'Végétal' had hints of Kate Bush about it, 'The Big Machine' feels like a full-on homage to the great woman - a similar style of piano-based pop songs with hints of showtunes and classical training to them, served on a bed of modern and retro electronica.

Simon's voice is remarkably similar to Bush's - the same flighty, arabesque upper register that tilts towards a slightly squeaky falsetto. Added to this, the lyrics on 'The Big Machine' are in English. (She now lives and works in New York, as recounted in this album's 'Chinatown'.)

We only hope that she won't mind the constant comparisons to La Bush. But then, there are worse fates in life than being compared favourably to a bona fide pop genius.

Aside from the Kate Bush similarities, there's a lot to enjoy on 'The Big Machine'. Simon can certainly write strong, catchy tunes with satisfying choruses - we reckon these songs will sound great live. (No Irish or UK shows for her at the time of writing - yet another similarity to Kate Bush. Sorry; we'll stop that.)

You can listen to 'The Big Machine' in full for free here on Deezer, and there are tracks on Emilie Simon's website and MySpace page. Our favourites are 'The Cycle', the 'Babooshka'-esque 'Ballad Of The Big Machine' - and the lead-off single from the album, the very '80s 'Dreamland':


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19

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with how we rave about Emily Loizeau. Her awesome 2006 debut album, 'L'Autre Bout Du Monde', was stuffed with brilliant piano-pop tunes that swung between joyous optimism and dark melancholy, sometimes even in the same song. It's quite similar in style, mood and quality to Duke Special's equally-brilliant 'Songs From The Deep Forest', and the two have appeared on stage together in Paris and Belfast.

Emily Loizeau 'Pays Sauvage'Loizeau's second album, 'Pays Sauvage', came out in France earlier this year and looks likely to get a UK and Ireland release this autumn in support of her series of British concerts. (No news yet of an Irish show.)

With Loizeau's second record comes those dreaded words: new direction. For the most part, 'Pays Sauvage' is an album of French-and-American-flavoured folk songs, like a Parisian music-hall revue camping in the Appalachians. The piano is gone: the dominant sounds are acoustic guitars, flutes and hand-held percussion. Brief snatches of children's voices are heavy signals of the innocence and playfulness that this album aims to capture. (The title translates as 'natural/unspoilt country'.) Nouveau folkies like Herman Dune and Moriarty are guests.

Loizeau's new style has influenced her songwriting. The tracks on her debut had carefully-crafted melodies where verses built up pressure that was released in dramatic choruses - but these new songs are altogether looser in structure. First single 'Sister' feels like a fireside singalong, while 'Fais Battre Ton Tambour' (which translates as 'Beat Your Tambourine') has a call-and-response format. And the title track dashes around dramatically like a modern dance troupe running to one side of the stage and then back again.

So is it any good? Well... hmmmmmm. Loizeau's effervescent personality still shines through, while her voice - sometimes clear and piercing, other times understated and intimate - is rich in character and unforced emotional strength. And fair play to her for having the courage to change her sound so radically.

But we have two major reservations about this album:

First, the bohemian folk-pop sound is a bit fashionable in France these days. Everyone's at it. As well as the aforementioned Herman Dune and Moriarty, you have Cocoon and Yael Naim enjoying huge success. (In fact, listening to 'Pays Sauvage' and looking at its cover photo reminds us of Naim's single 'New Soul' and its happy-clappy, hippy-drippy video.) Our point is that her debut album sounded like none of her peers but her second album sounds like quite a lot of her peers. Perhaps inadvertently, Loizeau has hitched her trailer to a bandwagon.

Second, with the relaxed vibe of her new acoustic folk sound, it feels like the hard work of songwriting craft has been neglected. The songs on 'Pays Sauvage' are all decent and often good - but nowhere near the quality of her debut tracks and their strong, soaring melodies and hooks. Compare 'Pays Sauvage' to another 2009 folk-flavoured second album, Alela Diane's 'To Be Still'. The young American has progressed from the ramshackle shanties of her likeable debut to the towering and carefully-built songs of her magnificent new record, without losing anything from her style or personality. By contrast, Loizeau seems to have made the reverse trip - from artisanship back to rough improvisation.

This follow-up is a decent album but Loizeau had set the bar much higher for herself with that fantastic debut. Unfortunately, 'Pays Sauvage' is a mis-step.

You can listen to tracks from 'Pays Sauvage' on Emily Loizeau's MySpace page. Here's the video for 'Sister':


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17

Your correspondent is still a young man and reluctant to sound like an old fogey. But we remember when being number one in the UK singles charts seemed to mean something. It didn't necessarily mean that the single was any good - just that it had seeped into the mainstream consciousness enough to reach that milestone. Today, 'UK number one single' doesn't have the same air of cultural significance that it had even in Ireland. There are a number of possible reasons for this, commercial and technological and sociological, but the most likely is that when Westlife do something 14 times and Boyzone six times it no longer feels like something worth doing.

F*** me I'm number one in the UK and Ireland!: David GuettaSo far in 2009 a Frenchman has done it twice. Superstar DJ David Guetta (right) topped both the UK and Irish charts for the first time in June with 'When Love Takes Over', featuring Kelly Rowland on vocals. He repeated the UK part of that trick in August with Akon up front, on 'Sexy Chick', which at the time of writing has not made number one in Ireland.

While French footballers have thrived cross-channel, their pop counterparts seem to struggle as soon as they hit Dover - or even when they continue on to Rosslare. Guetta is only the fourth French artist to take a song to the UK number one spot, which means that only five Gallic singles have topped Her Majesty's charts. In Ireland too only five French singles have gone to uimhir a h-aon - but not always the same songs that reached Britain's top position. Seeing as you asked, here they are.

You should know the first because it's one of the most notorious singles ever: 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Banned by the BBC because of Birkin's suggestive sound effects on the fade-out (the lyrics are relatively unerotic and in any case are in French), it went to number one in Britain on 7 October 1969 for one week, having stalled at number two in Ireland the previous month. A throwaway composition originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was Gainsbourg's only hit in the UK - a matter of frustration for an anglophile who recorded most of his classic late-60s songs in London. The great man is therefore, from a British point of view, just a one-hit-wonder - and only then because of his British partner's non-musical contribution.

'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' is remarkable for another piece of UK chart trivia. It was originally pressed and released in Britain by Fontana Records, who got scared by the subsequent controversy and dropped the single despite the fact that it had reached number two in the charts. Gainsbourg arranged to have the single re-released on the small Major Minor label, and it's this latter edition that made the final ascent to number one. But there were still enough copies of the Fontana release on sale for that version to linger lower in the charts while the Major Minor edition was on top. So, 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin is the only single to occupy two places in the same week's UK chart. (Remember that for some future pub quiz.)

The next French chart-topper was much less controversial - but perhaps also less French because it's in English. In the summer of 1974 'She' by old-school crooner Charles Aznavour spent four weeks at number one in Britain and one week in Ireland. You may know the song from Elvis Costello's version on the soundtrack to 'Notting Hill'. Aznavour, a likeable sort with a distinctive warbling voice, was already (and still is) a star in France and had a sizeable international following - but, oddly, 'She' wasn't a success in his home country. He now lives in Switzerland: his parents were Armenian and he is Armenia's ambassador to Switzerland and delegate to the United Nations in Geneva.

No French single topped the UK charts during the 1980s. But in Ireland we had two French number ones that decade. However, be we French or Irish, let's not get too proud here. In mid-October 1981 our number one single was 'Hands Up' by Ottowan, whose other big hit was 'D.I.S.C.O'. Ottowan's singles were co-written and produced by Daniel Vangarde - who happens to be the father of Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk. The royalties from Ottowan's hits no doubt kept young Thomas in pocket money for synthesisers and music lessons: without 'D.I.S.C.O.' by Ottowan there might never have been Daft Punk.

Incredibly, the second French number one in Ireland during the 1980s is much worse: ghastly synth-ballad 'Words' by F.R. David spent a shocking five weeks as our official favourite song in 1983. But then perhaps some French marketing guy had done his research, found that we were the country of Chris de Burgh and simply let us have it.

There was no French chart success on either island during the late '80s and most of the 1990s. Both Black Box, with 1989's 'Ride On Time', and Eiffel 65, makers of the irritating chart-topper 'Blue', were Italian groups sometimes mistakenly considered French. (Black Box's French frontperson, Catherine Quinol, was later revealed to have been miming Milli Vanilli-style to session singers.) A near miss on both sides of the Irish Sea was the 1998 hit 'Music Sounds Better With You' by Stardust, a side project of (hey!) Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk.

Finally, in March 1999, a French act ruled Britannia (but not Hibernia) again - though under strange circumstances. 'Flat Beat' by Parisian DJ Mr Oizo ('pronounced 'wazzo' like the French word for 'bird', 'oiseau') was featured in a jeans commercial starring a furry yellow puppet called Flat Eric. This was the period when the soundtrack songs of this brand's ads were guaranteed to top the charts. And the title 'Flat Beat' is a perfect description of this numbingly repetitive track.

Modjo: rising to number one in 2000Mr Oizo is still making music. Last year he released an album called 'Lamb's Anger', the cover of which featured Flat Eric having his eyeball slit open by a razor blade. Strange, indeed.

France didn't have to wait very long for its first UK and Irish number one of the 21st century. In September 2000 Modjo (left) topped both charts with the catchy dancefloor pop of 'Lady' (video at the end of this article), built around a sample from 'Soup For One' by the mighty Chic. Modjo were a Parisian duo: Romain Tranchart making the music and Yann Destagnol providing the vocals. They followed up 'Lady' with an album but never enjoyed the same success again.

And that brings us up to 2009 and Guetta's chart-toppers.

No French act has yet had a UK number one album - Daft Punk's 'Discovery' got to number two in 2000, while Guetta's current album 'One Love' has so far peaked at number two as well. But Air's 'Talkie Walkie' was Ireland's number one album for two weeks in early 2004.

(UK chart statistics courtesy of www.theofficialcharts.com; Irish chart statistics courtesy of www.irishcharts.ie, a fantastic resource that has the seal of approval from the great Larry Gogan. All hail Larry.)

We've already featured 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' on this blog before so here's 'Lady' by Modjo, which we find rather charming:


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15

French pop music has a number of signature styles that the wider world immediately recognises. There's le french touch - that mix (in varying measures) of electronica and indie made famous by Daft Punk and Air and continued by the likes of Cassius, Phoenix and Justice. The dramatic music-hall torch-songs of Edith Piaf have gained new life from the recent Oscar-winning biopic. And the dark cabaret ballads of adopted Frenchman Jacques Brel have been influential on the work of Scott Walker, David Bowie and Nick Cave.

One classic French genre that has slipped out of the international limelight in recent years is the Gallic '60s pop sound. Where British bands of the time seemed tight on uppers and rock n'roll attitude, the music of their French peers has the cool and languid feel of bebop jazz. The drumming is sparse and low in the mix, guitars are clipped, basslines are looser, symphonic strings add je ne sais quoi - and there's an air of liberated playfulness. This was the start of Serge Gainsbourg's golden period: the fantastic singles he wrote for France Gall, Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Hardy, plus his own masterpieces up to 1971's 'Histoire De Melody Nelson' album. You can hear this sound in tracks as diverse as 'Sexy Boy' by Air, 'Veni Vidi Vici' by Katell Keineg, countless songs by Belle And Sebastian and Camera Obscura, and 'Be My Baby', the Vanessa Paradis hit written by Lenny Kravitz.

Diving With AndyWe mention the classic '60s French sound because it's revisited in a wonderful new record by a Parisian band. 'Sugar Sugar' is the second album by Diving With Andy (right), a trio comprising singer Juliette Paquereau and multi-instrumentalists Julien Perraudeau and Rémy Galichet. While there's no killer chorus or earworm hook in any of the songs here, their subtle melodies and arrangements are sufficiently charming to hold your attention from first track to last. In particular, Paquereau's soft croon and tender, thoughtful lyrics are quite lovely. The whole package reminds us of the aforementioned 'Histoire De Melody Nelson'.

Our highlight is 'Merry Dance', a wistful little thing that cleverly expresses barely-suppressed heartbreak and regret with a gently swirling tune and poetic lyrics that play on images of dancing: it begins "Should I ever lead you/My steps would never deceive you". 'Astral Weeks' gets a mention on 'You Don't Have To Cry', a poppier tune loaded with references to England, making mundane placenames like Liverpool and Northampton sound as exotic as they must have done to '60s French fans of imported British pop. (This reminds us that Melody Nelson was from that mystical north-eastern city, Sunderland.)

Listen to songs from 'Sugar Sugar' on Diving With Andy's MySpace page. The title track was a recent single and it's rather lovely too - here's the video:


 

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11

For English-speaking audiences, perhaps the best-known and best-loved French film of recent years is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'Amélie', released in 2001 in France as 'Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain' ('The Fabulous Destiny Of Amélie Poulain').

Amélie: the posterYou surely know the scenario by now: in the aftermath of Princess Diana's fatal Paris car crash in 1997, innocent daydreamer Amélie (played by Audrey Tautou) sets out to improve the lives of those around her. But when she falls for the idiosyncratic Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) she's too shy to take her own chance of happiness.

In France the movie's old-fashioned optimism captured the country's imagination and added to the buoyant mood created by the national football team's World Cup and European Championship successes. It also pleased conservatives who saw the film as somehow embodying traditional French community values - a dangerous idea to be floating in that Le Pen-marked era. (Ironically, the film was originally written to star Emily Watson and to have much of the action in London. Only because Watson was committed to Robert Altman's 'Gosford Park' was the screenplay reworked and recast with the relatively unknown Tautou. And the interiors were shot in a studio in Cologne, the film being co-produced by a German company.)

Sure enough, there were many French people who didn't see its charms and questioned the popular perception of the film as being representative of the real Paris and France. It emerged that Jeunet had digitally removed from location shots any graffitti, dog turds and other such unwanted street details. Critics questioned the film's racial balance: the only main non-white character is Lucien the much-bullied mentally/physically disabled shop assistant (played by stand-up comic Jamel Debbouze, who really does have a withered right arm like his character), and there's a rather superfluous scene on a train platform where Amélie feels intimidated by a group of black teenage boys. (Ironically again, the male lead in 'Amélie', Kassovitz, directed 'La Haine', that searing portrayal of ethnic tension in suburban France and the other internationally-well-known French movie of the period. It's often considered to be the anti-'Amélie'.)

Mathieu Kassovitz and Audrey Tautou in 'Amélie'It's true that the Paris of 'Amélie' is surprisingly free of street detritus, ethnic groups - and tourists. But the film is clearly meant to be as whimsical and escapist as its title character. When Amélie's bedroom ornaments start discussing her romantic problems while she sleeps, it should be clear that this isn't docudrama or cinema verité.

And some others just hated it because they thought it was schmaltz. Fortunately for diabetics in the audience, most hints of saccharine are neutralised by a dark strand of tragicomedy - especially in the flashback to Amélie's childhood (her mother's bizarre death, for instance). The supporting characters all have some touch of sadness or bitterness in their hearts - the failed writer, two jilted lovers, the hypochondriac tobacconist, the fragile old painter and the bar owner who was crippled when her lover literally let her down. And the central couple are unglamorous childlike innocents who seem lost in the nightmare of a cynical modern world, especially in the context of Diana's shocking death - Amélie is timid like a mouse and Nino (the world's most unlikely sex industry employee) keeps a scrapbook collection of ghostly discarded passport photos. It's easy to root for them. One rather touching scene is Amélie's daydream of Nino popping down to the shop and returning to her apartment: it rings true.

The film was released in the USA as 'Amélie From Montmartre' - because Montmartre is where most of the action takes place. Fans can visit the key locations and we believe there's even an 'Amélie' tour of the area. The restaurant-bar, Les Deux Moulins, is a real establishment on rue Lepic - the tobacconist counter was removed a few years ago to make room for more seats but the rest is as it appears in the film. Similarly, the greengrocery is a real shop on rue des Trois Frères. Amélie's metro line is the 12: she encounters a beggar playing records on the platform at Abbesses, while her descriptive tour for the blind man ends at the entrance to Lamarck-Caulincourt. And her trail of arrows leads Nino up the park at the basilica of Sacré-Coeur, now a hugely popular tourist venue since that scene. However, the iconic stone-skimming scene is from Canal Saint-Martin, a few kilometres south-east of Montmartre.

If you've never been to Montmartre, it's on a hill in the north of the city. Its bohemian reputation comes from the fact that artists like Renoir and Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec lived and worked there. On the southern foot of the hill is Pigalle with its seedy strip clubs and the Moulin Rouge. Abbesses, the hip part, is just up the hill from the Moulin Rouge. Most tourists go towards Sacré-Coeur and Place du Tertre, where modern-day portraitists hope to cash in on Montmartre's association with art. Down the other side are streets like rue Lamarck and rue Caulincourt, with few tourists and a more relaxed and authentic vibe. There's a cemetery in Montmartre: the most famous resident is François Truffaut, thus adding another link between Montmartre and cinema. (Three short clips from 'Jules Et Jim' pop up during 'Amélie'.)

Yann TiersenLike 'La Haine', 'Amélie' is celebrated for its soundtrack - the old-style accordion and classical piano score composed by Yann Tiersen. (Musically too, 'Amélie' and 'La Haine' seem to be conjoined opposites.) Not from Montmartre but from the Breton town of Brest, Tiersen (right) wasn't the first choice to write the film's music - but Michael Nyman, Jeunet's original pick, was unavailable. As with Emily Watson's prior engagement, this was a happy accident for Jeunet - Tiersen's evocative and playful waltzes have contributed hugely to the film's popularity. In particular, the film's theme, 'La Valse d'Amélie', is instantly recognisable.

In fact, the soundtrack to 'Amélie' is the story of two records. Tiersen started writing the film score while already making an album called 'L'Absente', from which he borrowed instrumental passages for his 'Amélie' project. Both records were released in 2001: Tiersen was the golden boy of French music that year.

'L'Absente' is a marvellous album, superior to its sibling. Just as 'La Haine' is the counter-image of 'Amélie', so 'L'Absente' is a darker and sadder take on the romance of the film soundtrack. (The title of 'L'Absente' suggests a female who is missing or gone: we can presume there's no happy ending.) The dominant sounds are glacial pianos (think of Chopin and Satie) and mournful strings, with accordions and toy pianos in supporting roles that are almost taunting in their joie de vivre. The standout track of 'L'Absente' is the melancholic 'La Parade' and its dark, velvety vocals from Lisa Germano.

There's an Irish connection - and, it being sensitive French alternative pop, this can only mean Neil Hannon. Our fellow Francophile sings his own English lyrics to the whirling waltz of 'Les Jours Tristes'. This was the period of Hannon's effort at sounding less whimsical and more heartfelt, and 'Les Jours Tristes' is certainly cut from the same cloth as his writing on The Divine Comedy's 'Regeneration' and Jane Birkin's single 'Home'. The instrumental version of the song is played over the closing credits of 'Amélie', and so Hannon has a writing credit on the film soundtrack too - a rather lucrative little nixer.

Your blogger-to-be was at Tiersen's Dublin concert in Vicar Street in 2003, where the star was backed by a fine Breton indie band called The Married Monk. Hannon didn't appear to sing his song (the lead singer of The Married Monk sang 'Les Jours Tristes' that night), but Tiersen was still captivating to watch. In particular, we were most impressed by how he played the piano and accordion at the same time.

A friend of ours saw Tiersen play at a festival in Spain this summer. Unfortunately, it seems that he has decided to rock out - with excruciating results. Was this a once-off whim or the dreaded 'new direction'? Time will tell: Tiersen's new album is due for release before the end of this year.

You should listen to 'L'Absente' (here in full on Deezer, for instance) and get a complete picture of Tiersen and 'Amélie'. Back to the film and its soundtrack, though - live at La Route du Rock in 2001, here's Yann Tiersen on melodica and piano with 'Le Moulin'.


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2003 - Witnness 2003, a comprehensive review by Brian Kelly of the 2 days of what transpired to be the last ever Witnness festival (in 2004 it was rebranded as Oxegen when Heineken stepped into the sponsor shoes).