When I moved to France in 2001, it quickly became apparent that I would have to brush up on my références culturelles, or remain forever a social outcast. I would have to learn to laugh at the films of Louis de Funès, quote dialogue from Le père Noël est une ordure or Les bronzés font du ski, and sing along to the lyrics of Claude François songs.
This is neither the time nor the place to launch into a defence of French popular music, which some wilfully ignorant anglophones still enjoy sneering at. But if it were, I would not produce Claude François as Exhibit Number One. It’s relatively easy to make a case for Serge Gainsbourg, or even for the likes of Renaud, Laurent Voulzy or Daniel Balavoine, but Claude François? Before my move to France, he hovered just outside the edge of my awareness. I knew he’d died in 1978 at the age of 39, electrocuted adjusting a light fitting while standing in the bath – the sort of legendarily stupid death you get to hear about, even if you live in another country.
So when I began to explore the joys of French pop music, he was not at the top of my list, though I was given pause at a birthday party in the Paris banlieue in 2002, where I saw everyone in the room not just singing along to Alexandrie Alexandra but dancing along to it as well. Everyone knew the words and the kitty-claw gestures – everyone except me, that is. Verily, I thought, this man holds a special place in the French heart, but when I tried listening to some of his stuff I found it bland, sentimental and oddly unmemorable. “Mais non,” said my friend Frédérique when I told her this, “You don’t listen to Claude François – you have to watch him sur scène with his Clodettes.” The Clodettes were Claude François’ crack team of scantily-clad dancing girls, as precise and as disciplined as the Bolshoi corps de ballet.
And Frédérique was right. To get the full flavour of Claude François you have to watch clips of him singing and dancing. Because, although he’s smiling, his is not the face of someone dancing for pleasure. It’s the face I imagine Karen might have worn when she realised she couldn’t get those Red Shoes off and was doomed to dance till she dropped dead. It’s the face of a man possessed by a demon, a tortured soul who is obliged to keep singing his heart out, otherwise he’ll explode like John Cassavetes at the end of Brian De Palma’s The Fury. He looks like a cursed puppet whose every movement is perfect, yet somehow involuntary. Here is a man who is driven.
And like that, I was hooked.
Florent-Emilio Siri’s biopic of Claude François, Cloclo, has the not inconsiderable advantage of an extraordinary central performance by Jérémie Renier, the Belgian actor most closely associated with the social realist films of the Dardenne brothers, but who has also cropped up in films as diverse as In Bruges, François Ozon’s Les amants criminels and Potiche, and, last but not least, Les aventures de Philibert, capitaine puceau, a sublimely silly send-up of the Gérard Philippe school of swashbuckler. In other words, Renier is the real deal, and the only reason he won’t attract the sort of international acclaim awarded Marion Cotillard for La môme or Vincent Cassel for Mesrine is that Claude François may turn out to be of limited interest to distributors and audiences in non-francophone territories.
Renier, who already bears an uncanny resemblance to the singer, disappears into his skin so perfectly you forget you’re watching a performance and end up thinking you’re somehow privy to the real events of the man’s life, captured by a film-maker that no-one on screen seems to notice but who is certainly not self-effacing. The first Siri film I saw was Nid de guêpes, a shameless rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13 which turned out a lot more fun than that movie’s official remake; the director then stopped off in Hollywood to make the underrated Hostage, starring Bruce Willis; he is accordingly able to demonstrate that he is no neophyte, and duly does so with a clutch of virtuouso extended travelling shots, at least a couple of which are not purely for show – a sort of variation of Ray Liotta’s Life in the Day in Goodfellas but with hysterical fans instead of cocaine as the central motif, or a garden party that reminds you of the pool party scene in Boogie Nights, itself inspired by the rooftop tracking shot in Soy Cuba.
But what a life it was. As Dr Eldon Tyrell says to Roy the replicant in Blade Runner, “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long – and you have burned so very brightly.” Did I say driven? Cloclo is the portrait of a manic control freak with OCD, a man so jealous he would lock his first wife in their grotty apartment while he went out on the town; so eaten up with envy when his then companion, France Gall, won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg with the Serge Gainsbourg song Poupée de cire, poupée de son, that when she rang him up afterwards he yelled, “You were terrible!” and refused to let her back into their flat; who courted his second wife by effectively stalking her before crashing his car into the back of hers; who disowned his own mother because of her gambling; who insisted on one of his two infant sons being kept hidden at all times from everyone except close relatives.
In terms of structure, Cloclo is more chronologically conventional than La môme, warmer than Mesrine, less eccentric than Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque). It doesn’t sugar-coat its borderline unlikeable subject, yet at the same time shows admiration, even affection, for what he accomplished. After an idyllic childhood in Egypt abruptly brought to a close by the Suez crisis, there’s a bit of a father issue (François senior wants his son to work in a bank) which mercifully isn’t flogged to death, nor is it served up as the reason for his manic personality, which in certain respects resembles that of a big baby – he’s always having tantrums, and there’s something childish about his search for the perfect wife. The film also suggests he was addicted to fame in the way that some pop stars are addicted to drugs, and worked himself into the ground to maintain it; there’s a sense that he’s enjoying the trappings (groupies, caviar, flash motors, adoration) not so much for themselves but because he sees them as a requisite element of the pop star persona he has constructed.
|The real Claude François; photo by Jean-Loup Sieff|
Siri, who co-wrote the scénario with Julien Rappeneau, goes to town in showing the man’s relentless energy and drive, his compulsion (egged on by Benoît Magimel in an oddly made-up and over-emphasised performance as his right-hand man – maybe it’s just because Magimel is too well-known an actor to melt into the background) to reinvent himself, and his magpie borrowings – a bit of yéyé from Johnny Halliday, some stagecraft from Otis Redding, hit songs from everyone from the Everly Brothers to the Four Tops to Pete Seeger. But it wasn’t all one-way traffic, not quite, because Claude François co-wrote a song called Comme d’habitude, which was recorded by Frank Sinatra as My Way, which would become arguably the most famous song in the world. Sinatra (played by Robert Knepper, better known as T-Bag from Prison Break) is glimpsed as a near-legendary figure, rehearsing on a distant stage or passing through a hotel lobby, where Claude François, the writer of his hit song, is lingering, too starstruck to approach.
The film’s crowning achievement is to make you realise that Claude’s fatal appointment with that light-fitting wasn’t just a tragic accident – it was inevitable. We’ve already seen him getting a nose job early in his career with the words, “Chaque détail compte” – every detail counts. We’ve seen him adjusting the angle of pictures on the wall, checking ornaments for dust, drilling his Clodettes, yelling at a backing musician for playing a false note, insisting on controlling every last aspect of his life, from his home life to his groupies to fans to his publicity photos to his own accounts. No wonder he collapses on stage from nervous exhaustion. As he takes that final shower, the light fitting lurks in the background like a serial-killer; we can see it, we know what’s going to happen and we’re willing him not to touch it. But at the same time we know that, when that light-bulb flickers, he won’t be able to resist. Chaque détail compte.
Will this film appeal to anglophone audiences unfamiliar with Claude François? Discerning ones, I’d say, because the life and times of such a nutjob make compelling viewing, the same way that those Mafia scumbags in Goodfellas were so fascinating. Claude François does his own singing, but the dancing is all Renier. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds a touch of sweetness. My one big disappointment is that we don’t get to see Renier performing the kitty-cat gestures to Alexandrie Alexandra, which came out on the day of his burial (accompanied by Diana-levels of hysterical mass mourning) and is here played over the closing credits.
But you can still see the original Cloclo performing it on TV.