I Don’t Speak French, Mais ce n’est pas un Problème
by John Davies
Although my grasp of French is basic, given the right circumstances I could be extremely useful. If you ever meet me in a La Rochelle hotel and need to ask reception to open a stuck bedroom widow, I’m your man. I would also be an asset when ordering pizza or a crepe in Paris and you were struggling with naming the toppings/fillings you wanted. In addition to this, if you suddenly had a road to Damascus moment in a bar in Bordeaux and realised that all was chaos, all of your ideas were either dead or damaged and you were looking for a friend to help you survive being part of a disenchanted generation, I’d ace it. Especially at Karaoke.
Now, before you start ransacking your memory chests for those GCSE French books, not all of this arsenal of handy French comes from school. You see, I learned French twice. Once at school, and then again while at University when I spent a great deal of time at a dear friend’s house. While Julian was not at Sheffield University, he did attend the LGB Group evenings we held every Tuesday and, through a shared liking of Roxette, we got on immediately. We spent a great deal of time together through my time at University, with both families becoming friends. Although we have not seen each other for years, I know that if either of us knew the other was in trouble they would drop everything to help them. We had, and have, that kind of bond.
One morning over at his parents’ house, I was sat at the breakfast table when I found myself singing along to a song coming from Julian’s room. Music was always playing in that house, it was his main passion, so this was nothing new. However, that morning it suddenly dawned on me that I was singing … in French! When Julian finally shuffled into the kitchen I immediately asked him what the record was. “It’s Desenchantee, silly. I’ve played it loads of times.” And indeed he had. Every day that week. That particular morning, though, I finally heard it.. And in hearing it, I knew I loved it – and wanted to know more about the female artist singing it. All this despite the fact that at that moment I had no idea what on earth she was singing about.
And therein lies the question: what was pulling me toward an artist I did not understand?
Of course, the music and her voice were the first tugs I felt. Desenchanatee is a song that announces it’s there quite emphatically and the voice is hypnotic, lyrical and forceful in equal measure. It’s a fully fledged instrument in its own right, having its own laws and only requiring to be heard to be felt if not ‘understood’. And the chorus! Oh, that chorus! But I wanted to delve deeper. I had to know more – and in the space of a few short days (days when I really should have been doing an essay on Henry V) I embarked on a crash course with a very willing tutor. I may have left University with a 2.1 in English Literature but I left Julian’s with a First in Mylene Farmer.
The first time I saw Mylene Farmer she was wearing a flat cap and, after a brutal stoning, being dragged through the streets of a concentration camp. Julian was showing me the video, sorry Le Clip, for Desenchantee. This shockingly brutal visual was my first indication that the tuneful, melodic sound I had been listening to might have a deeper, darker side. Yes, I’d gathered that Desenchantee meant disenchanted – but not to this degree! In the space of Le Clip Mylene not only sees, and suffers, brutality in that camp but pro-actively leads a rebellion within the inmates. Marching over tables and taking command her group are soon wielding machine guns and setting the camp on fire in their bid to freedom. However, after a frantic race across snow the clip ends with the band of escaped prisoners sliding to a halt. The horizon before them is vast, bleak and empty. They may well have escaped, but what to? As the credits roll, Mylene takes them on their first steps forward into an unknown future.
Yes, you’re correct. I have just described a pop video. As I soon discovered, at that stage in her career Mylene was renowned for making movie-style promotional videos rather than the usual fair of singing to the camera/concert footage that many artists preferred. Together with Laurent Boutenant she made numerous showcases for her songs, creating actual worlds in which they lived and breathed. Libertine sees a dual to the death leading to an all mighty bitch fight in a brothel and a further death, Sans Conftrefacon shows Mylene as a ‘modern day’ Pinocchio figure coming to life for her puppeteer and the colossal Pourvu qu’elles Soient Douces, knowingly calling itself Libertine II following the success of that film, picks up where that left off and runs head long into an 18 minute recreation of an unknown battle in the Napoleonic War.
As all of this was being fronted by an extremely aesthetically pleasing woman with an incredible voice and, initially alarmingly dyed red hair, it was easy to get swept into the realms she was creating. Even though I got glimpses at her meaning through familiar words, I didn’t need to know what she actually singing about. She was the deal in herself. And at that time, especially so.
When I discovered Mylene Farmer she just emerging from one of her greatest creations and eras, the time where she was a self-labelled mystery and enigma. She never gave interviews and sightings were rare. Pretentious? Possibly, but it worked. When Mylene announced her first concert, her fans went crazy for tickets. They would finally get to see the woman who had cast such a spell over them. And it was while watching the video for that concert, sat on bean bags in Julian’s room, that Mylene Farmer did the impossible. The enigma dropped and she reached her hand out to me through that tv screen and she has never let go.
“Live” on stage Mylene stepped from the enigma and became a person, and, as the show went on, a very warm, responsive one. Oh – and a very emotional one, too. I didn’t have to fully grasp her lyrics to know that many were significantly emotional – her delivery, and the videos, had demonstrated this. However, I was not prepared for what happened during her rendition of Ainsi-Soit Je… Verse delivered, she reached the chorus and right there, in front of thousands of adoring fans, broke down. Yes, she is an actress as well as a singer so this could well be part of the “Farmer Package” but that did not diminish its impact. Shaken and crying, Mylene holds the microphone and the audience takes over, singing her song back at her. The walls of the mystery were irreversible down as fan and star joined forces. Recovering enough to finish the song, she then pleasingly changes the end lyric to, “Merci”, thanking the audience for validating what she is. There is a layered meaning to that word change that translating the song has given me, but it is simply not needed. The moment is the moment as it stands. And it was a moment that, to me, transformed Mylene from an artist I liked to one I would follow to this day.
Of course, now the walls were down, what would Mylene do? She couldn’t possibly go back into the persona she had just publically paraded for the last time. And she didn’t. When she came back, her tone was lighter, the music more upbeat (even if the lyrics were not) and a whole new Mylene dropped down from a fictional heaven in Que Mon Coer Lache. The video, directed by Luc Beson, includes some genuinely amusing scenes, including one showing Michael Jackson encountering a tricky situation, and is a great deal of fun.
There’s a line in Sans Contrefacon where Mylene says she is a chameleon. She has certainly been that over the years, forcing many to compare her to Madonna. Although this is, broadly, a fair assessment, they are two totally different beasts as artists.
However chameleonic Mylene is there are two things that will, hopefully and thankfully, never change. Her haunting voice and, of course, that now reassuringly dyed red hair.
Note – This column was originally published on the old Winterwind Productions site in July, 2013, prior to our switch to WordPress in 2020.