Sunday, 20 January 2013

I Don't Give a Damn for Ordinary Joys: Edith Piaf in La Garconne

For Christmas my old friends Petra and Rob gave me a copy of No Regrets, Carolyn Burke’s 2011 biography of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf. I’m almost finished: it’s beautifully-researched and non-sensational (Piaf’s brief and tempestuous life was already sensational enough!), and gives a nice social history of the working-class Bohemian Parisian milieu she emerged from.  For anyone who enjoyed the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard, No Regrets is almost required reading – it really fills in the film’s gaps.

I was particularly intrigued to read Burke’s account of Piaf’s film debut:
 “That month (December 1935), she performed in a film version of Victor Margueritte’s scandalous novel La Garçonne, about a middleclass woman who forsakes an arranged marriage to experience life in Pigalle – where she frequents lesbian bars like Lulu’s, the occasion for Edith’s cameo role. Dressed in satin evening pajamas and surrounded by female admirers, Edith crooned “Quand meme,” a sultry apologia for vice: “I don’t give a damn / For ordinary joys / Weakly the virtuous ones / See their end in heaven / I prefer the promise / Of artificial paradise” (English translation of the lyrics). A provocative part in a film with stars like Marie Bell, Arletty, and Suzy Solidor meant that Edith was on her way.”

Thank to the magic of the internet, after reading this passage I set the book aside and found Piaf’s La Garçonne musical number on Youtube pretty much instantly.

The clip is fascinating for two reasons. It captures the very young (20-year old) "La Môme Piaf" at embryonic stage, still in transition from raw and unpolished street urchin / guttersnipe to becoming the quintessential black-gowned tragedienne of French chanson, who Ed Sullivan would later call “the most amazing ninety seven pounds in show business.”(More poetically, Jean Cocteau praised her as “France’s nightingale”). Young Piaf really tears into the song – she seems defiant, almost angry. What a powerful presence she already was at this early stage. As the film confirms, Piaf was one of those people who never looked “young”: she was definitely striking, but even in her twenties, Piaf was already waxy and sallow. How to describe it: drained? Consumptive? Tubercular?

Secondly, it’s interesting to see a lesbian nightclub depicted in a 1930s French film. French films were far franker and more louche than even pre-Code Hollywood films of the same period. I vividly remember seeing the French musical Zou Zou (1934) starring Josephine Baker and Jean Gabin many years ago; it’s set in the world of Paris music hall, and I was surprised by the occasional nonchalant glimpses of bare breasts in the backstage dressing room scenes. Anyways, Lulu’s looks like something out of a Tamara de Lempicka painting or Brassai's book Paris de Nuit come to life: it's a shimmering vision of Art Deco decadence. Women in formal evening gowns lounge on the floor on cushions by Piaf’s feet. Their glazed demeanours make them seem stoned on opium (or drugged by sex). In dreamy close-up, one of the women closes her eyes while Piaf sings, as if transported in erotic reverie. It’s all very Anais Nin (this sequence anticipates the lesbian nightclub scene in the 1990 film Henry and June). The Youtube clip is a tantalising fragment – I’d love to see the whole film now!

PS: Looking up photos for this blog, I came across this classic 1930s Brassai shot of Paris by night. Check out the young Parisian beauty on the right, and how rakishly he’s angled his flat cap. Every time I go to Paris, it’s someone like him I hope to meet! Oh, for a time machine.


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