An alternative reading of French rock history is given in Oh les filles (Haut les filles), from French journalist-turned-director Francois Armanet, and, as the title suggests, it privileges a female point-of-view. The non-fiction feature posits that rock-and-roll history did not start with Elvis Presley in the early 1950s but with Edith Piaf’s heart-rending rendition of “Hymne a l’Amour” in late 1949, on the day her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash. It’s an audacious alternative that launches this documentary portrait of 10 female singers active from then until now, with names interviewed including chanteuse and style icon Francoise Hardy, avant-garde music icon Brigitte Fontaine and actress-singers Charlotte Gainsbourg and Vanessa Paradis.
The film played in Cannes in the Cinema de la Plage sidebar and will be of interest to music- and women-focused film events, as well as general broadcasters.
The biggest merit of Armanet and co-writer Bayon, who like Armanet worked at the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, is that their interviews feel very raw and at times even soul-baring. Most of the interviewees talk about their uncertainties and their complexes, how they felt that they didn’t fit in, how they thought the world wanted them to look and to be and how the realization that they didn’t fit that mold make them feel.
Hardy is almost embarrassed to confess she was glad to discover at least her long legs looked good in a miniskirt, because she felt so self-conscious about everything else (her androgynous look in the Brigitte Bardot era took some getting used to, for herself as well as others). Gainsbourg, the actress and singer who is the daughter of French crooner Serge Gainsbourg and British actress Jane Birkin, says she wishes she’d look more like her mother and that the “female beauty standard” in her family was almost impossible to live up to. Since her appearance in the film An Impudent Girl, in which she played a 13-year-old, she’d been stuck with the jolie-laide label, which obviously isn’t great for the self-esteem of a girl in early puberty. To make matters worse, Gainsbourg’s half-sister, Lou Doillon, has always written her own material as a musician, which also fed into Gainsbourg’s lack of confidence as a singer, though Doillon, also interviewed, suggests she, too, struggled to stand out in a family where everyone was hyper-talented and always busy creating things.
Such insecurities are, of course, relatable for us mere mortals and suggest that the power of these women and the fact that they manage to be themselves onstage is already a major victory even before they have sung or played a single note. It is also the kind of insight few male rockers would probably ever publicly admit to, though it’s very likely many of them have dealt with similar issues of insecurity.
French model-turned-singer Imany, of Comorian descent, recounts how she was told she sounded like an “ogre” when she was younger, though now, as an adult, her gravelly voice is suddenly considered sexy. She admits that her own perception of her voice changed, which took some adjustment. Similarly, Paradis suggests she didn’t feel comfortable with the sound of her own voice until she started working with different people and recorded her second album.
The film, credited to three cinematographers including Guillaume Schiffman, who received an Oscar nomination for his black-and-white work on The Artist, includes the expected concert footage as well as the talking-head interviews with the ladies. Armanet also includes some archive photos and footage, which is Oh les filles!’s least successful aspect, as the director and his editor, Fabrice Rouaud (Saint Laurent), don’t really know how to properly integrate the contextual historical material into their overall narrative, so the sense of how female rock developed in France alongside the women (and a few men) fighting for abortion, contraception and other women’s rights issues feels fragmented and underdeveloped. By the time a “neither sluts nor slave” protest photo appears onscreen, it is hard to tell what we are looking at exactly and how it relates to the development of the artists interviewed or French rock history in a more general sense.
The structure of the documentary feels somewhat diffuse, with several related points faintly echoing each other without gathering the necessary punch because they haven’t been properly amplified by placing them in closer proximity. Since there doesn’t seem to be a general organizing principle beyond jumping from one interviewee to the other, this feels like a missed opportunity. The ending as well, which cuts between the faces of the different women while only one of them is heard in voiceover, feels somewhat maladroit in that it could be taken to mean the voice is speaking for all of them, when one of the main lessons here should be quite the opposite. Jeanne Added, for example, describes herself as gender-fluid, but that’s not necessarily something the other interviewees would identify as. The experience of the singers from a non-French background and the subjects they sing about and struggle with are quite unique to their own position within French society and history.
But the fact that the women so candidly talk about what it is like for someone to step into the spotlight and claim their spot and what that does to you as a person in general and a woman specifically ensures that Oh les filles! — which literally translates as something like “Oh girls!” — will be seen as an important document in French rock history. That it was directed by a man and written by two men feels like a particularly French touch in this time when female representation is — or should be — at the forefront of everybody’s mind.
For the record: The version released in French theaters on July 3 was narrated by French journalist Elisabeth Quin, while the version reviewed here is the international version, which is narrated, in English with a French accent, by Harry Potter actress Clemence Poesy.
Production companies: Incognita, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Jeanne Added, Jehnny Beth, Lou Doillon, Brigitte Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Imany, Camelia Jordana, Elli Medeiros, Vanessa Paradis
Director: Francois Armanet
Screenwriters: Francois Armanet, Bayon
Producer: Edouard de Vesinne
Executive producers: Frederic Bruneel
Directors of photography: Guillaume Schiffman, Romain Carcanade, Nicolas Bordier
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Sales: Les Films du Losange