I bought a new MP3 player – one of those tiny-as-a-matchbook things with the processing capability of the Starship Enterprise – and was loading on music when I realised: I seem to have some sort of mild addiction to Nouvelle Vague.
Featuring a revolving cast of husky-voiced chanteuses, this French group takes old punk songs and reworks them into slinky, sexy café-jazz. And I own no less than four of their albums, even though I only liked the first one. I’ve also bought two solo spin-offs.
Guaranteed, when their next mediocre album comes along I will have to possess it. I’ll continue to shell out for Nouvelle Vague ‘product’ until the world ends or my money runs out, whichever comes first.
Because I have an infatuation – probably borderline fetish – with the way French women sound. Those dreamy accents and bored-sounding voices do it for me every time. (What ‘it’ is, I’m not entirely sure, but I certainly don’t want to investigate the matter in a family newspaper…)
It doesn’t really matter what language: they’d sound equally charming in English or French or Mexican gang-banger slang or that stupid idiom invented for Avatar. It doesn’t matter if they’re reciting poetry or singing torch songs or reading aloud from Longford Town Council Planning Regulations 1978 (amended 1994). It doesn’t matter if they’re articulating verbosely on the merits of Sartre, or mumbling and doing that incredibly cool shoulder-rolling shrug that Gallic people do.
All that matters, mes amis, is that sounds are being emitted from the mouth of a French woman. That’s all I need. To be honest, that’s all any right-thinking man should need.
My Francophonophilia – yes, that is my own word; feel free to use it – dates back a long time. Freud would probably attribute it to me hearing Vanessa Paradis sing Joe le Taxi on Top of the Pops.
Aged 15 at the time (both me and Vanessa), it was a revelatory moment. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “Are people allowed to sound like that?” With due respect to the girls of my youth, this was not what I was used to hearing.
Va-va-voom went ka-boom…and I was in love, struck by the coup de foudre. Not with Vanessa – that ardour wore off quickly enough – but with the concept of French Woman, specifically how they sound, and remained so ever since.
Is it possible to fall in love with a sound? I’ve managed it, anyhow. It’s an obsession, a compulsion, a beautiful nightmare. It is – as I believe the French have it – an amour fou.
So all those years I’ve told myself that I watched French movies because of their psychological depth and subtle characterisation, I’ve been lying. I watched them so I could gaze on and listen to Sophie Marceau or Emmanuelle Beart.
You think that’s shameful? Ooh la la, it gets worse: I watch France 24 because bad news sounds much more palatable delivered by a French woman with perfect but accented English. I check out that car ad on YouTube to listen to the elegant lady contemplate cuisine and Baudelaire and “zee musst romanteeque cittee in zee world”. I listen to Caroline the agony aunt on French radio station Europe 1, although I haven’t a notion what she’s talking about.
I even patronised a French-owned coffee-house, not only because of their lovely coffee and friendly staff, but just to hear them speak. “Here’s your change, thanks, see you again.” Who would have thought that could sound so much like music?
The silliest thing about all this is that I’ve never even been to France, though I have been to other French-speaking places, but that’s not the same, is it? I mean to go, I will, someday. Head straight to the source, like a medieval pilgrim to Jerusalem.
In the meantime there’s a film reel playing in the back of my mind – black and white, naturellement, with a cool jazz soundtrack. I’m sitting in a chichi little Parisian cafe, opposite a pale French woman with a gamine haircut like an actress from a hip Truffaut movie. She’s wearing a black polo-neck and expression of intense existential angst, chain-smoking and making wild hand gestures as she rants about our tortured love affair.
At the end of her spiel she says, “Well? What do you think?”
I light another filterless Gitane, do a Tipperary version of the shoulder-rolling shrug and reply, “Whatever you say is fine by me.”