nicknamed Cloclo, unknown in America but one of France’s most famous pop music singers of the 1960s and ’70s, who died accidentally at age 39 (on the day before the first round of the 1978 legislative elections) while at the peak of his career. He’s the subject of a 2½ hour biopic that opened in France last month (trailer here). Reviews are good and it’s been a box office hit (spectator reviews on Allocine—which I’ve begun to pay attention to—rate it even higher than the critics). I enjoyed it myself. It’s well done and better than the recent biopics on Serge Gainsbourg—which I found somewhat disappointing—and Edith Piaf (though as singers I’ll take both over Claude François any day). And Jérémie Renier—a Dardenne brothers’ regular—is perfectly cast. Not only is his performance stellar but he bears an uncanny resemblance to Cloclo. It’s a conventional biopic in its structure, faithfully recounting Cloclo’s life in chronological order, of his childhood in Egypt—Ismailia on the Suez Canal, where he spent his first 17 years, until his family was expelled in 1956—, the launch of his career in Monaco and Paris, take off in 1962, frenetically striving to stay ahead of the curve in adopting new musical styles—Motown and disco among them, but also integrating Egyptian/Oriental beats from his youth—and to remain a teen idol into his 30s, his complicated relationship with his family, turbulent relationships with women… It’s all there in the pic.
Americans may not know a thing about Claude François but all will recognize his 1967 hit “Comme d’habitude,” which Frank Sinatra adapted two years later as “My Way” (thus the English title of the film). The scene where Cloclo receives the special delivery of the advance recording from Sinatra, whom he venerated, and listens to it is one of the high points in the movie. He also adapted songs from American artists and which became big hits in France, such as “J’attendrai” (from the Four Tops’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There”) and “Cette année-là” (from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons’s “Oh, What a Night”). And then there were his many original hit songs, among them “Le Lundi au soleil” (1972), “Magnolias for Ever” (1977), and, above all, “Alexandrie Alexandra” (1977). Borderline kitsch, with his signature stage act and go-go dancers (“les Claudettes,” including black women, which was edgy at the time). Some of his songs aren’t too bad—the tunes are catchy—, though I would have certainly turned my nose up at him at the time in view of my teenage musical snobbery. But then, I paid no attention to Sinatra back then either (though Cloclo was admittedly not on the same level with Ol’ Blue Eyes…).
Hollywood Reporter’s critic, who didn’t like the pic too much, said that it would appeal only to hardcore Cloclo fans. I disagree. One does not need to have been a Cloclo fan, or to even like his music, to enjoy the movie. Like I said, it’s entertaining, well done and acted, tells a good story about an interesting personality, and depicts well the France of les trente glorieuses (and also the pre-1956 foreign enclave in the Suez Canal zone). There is no a priori reason why American and other non-French audiences shouldn’t enjoy it, and maybe come away having learned a little something new about a slice of contemporary French society and popular culture.
(UPDATE: Here’s Claude François in 1962—calling himself “Kôkô”—, singing “Le Nabout twist” in Egyptian Arabic.)
While I’m at it, I will mention other recent French films I’ve seen over the past three months, each of a completely different genre. One was ‘Les Infidèles’ (literally, the unfaithful; English title: ‘The Players’), an “adult comedy” about the DSK segment of French malehood that I went to see strictly on account of the buzz and Jean Dujardin (and also profiting from the annual Printemps du Cinéma, where all movie tickets in France were €3.50 for three days). I’ll let Hollywood Reporter’s critic describe it
Hot off the Oscars and into the bedroom comes The Players (Les Infideles), a raunchy collection of adultery-themed shorts written by, starring and hatched from the mind of best actor laureate Jean Dujardin. Teaming up with The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius and a handful of rising Gallic filmmakers, Dujardin and fellow two-timer Gilles Lellouche (Point Blank) offer up a slick, occasionally hilarious but ultimately uneven appraisal of France’s favorite extramarital pastime.
Gallic humor for the masses. Only Jean Dujardin could cook this one up. It was indeed very raunchy in parts, occasionally funny—though the audience laughed more than I—, with a well-taken moral or message here and there, and with some of the shorts better than others. And I will admit to having a soft spot for Dujardin’s S.O., Alexandra Lamy, who has a brief role. I doubt Hollywood would dare make such a movie (as it would be hit with an NC-17 rating and get all sorts of groups worked up; and I can’t imagine two major Hollywood actors agreeing to do the pic’s final scene). It’s not for everyone and I won’t recommend it to certain friends and family. Variety’s review is here and former NYT Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino wrote about it here.
Also seen recently was ‘Une nuit’ (English title: ‘Paris by Night’), a neo-film noir about a plainclothes vice squad cop (played by Roschdy Zem) and his rookie cop driver (Sara Forestier) on the night beat, cruising through Paris and hitting one sleazy night club and bar after the other, most of whose lowlife management the Zem character is shaking down. It’s not the Paris by night of Woody Allen’s last film, that’s for sure. Local reviews were good (which is why I went to see it). Hollywood Reporter’s review is here.
And then there’s Benoît Jacquot’s ‘Les Adieux à la Reine’ (in English: ‘Farewell, My Queen’), on the ambiance at the court of Marie Antoinette in Versailles during the three days following the storming of the Bastille. French critics absolutely loved it (again, why I went to see it). Hollywood critics gave it the thumbs up too (here, here, here, and here). Yet one more reason not to blindly trust film critics, and particularly French ones. The acting wasn’t bad, notably Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger, but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor, as I was bored to tears during the film and couldn’t wait for it to end. My friend too, whose first words leaving the cinema were “Qu’est-ce que c’était ennuyeux !” I used stronger language to express the same sentiment. Spectator reviews on Allocine were also rather less positive than those of the professional critics. On this, I echo the vox populi.