Oh les Filles: Meet the Badass Women of French Rock

What if rock was not born with Elvis Presley, but with Edith Piaf? This is the starting point of the toe-tapping documentary Oh les Filles, presented at Cannes in 2019, which tells the story of French rock through its female leaders from Françoise Hardy to Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis, Lou Doillon, and Christine & The Queens. Ahead of the broadcast of this groundbreaking film on TV5 Monde USA on May 24, we talked with its director, French journalist François Armanet, and music critic Bayon, who has covered rock for the daily newspaper Libération since 1978.

France-Amérique: For a long time, rock was a guy thing. By focusing on women in your film and broadening the definition of rock, were you aiming to shatter the cliché, retrace the importance of women in popular music and chart the gradual increase in their power in parallel with the spread of feminism?

François Armanet: It started with producer Edouard de Vésinne asking me to make a film about French rock after he saw the documentary on African-American background singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom. I immediately thought of my old friend Bayon. When I started at Libération in 1981, there were two figureheads: Serge Daney for movies, and Bayon for music. Bayon put rock into a daily newspaper for the first time in France. We go back a long way, as they say, and have a very solid connection. We started by wondering what angle to bring to this history of French rock. There are our musketeers — Alain Bashung, Gérard Manset, Christophe, Jean-Louis Murat — and we prowled around those names before we had the idea of taking the female angle. It was more original, and the female scene nowadays is way more interesting than male rock.

Did the #MeToo movement also play a role in that choice?

Bayon: We had the idea way before the Weinstein affair, but by the time we were ready to shoot, the #MeToo tornado had blown through. Actually, we soon thought that #MeToo could help the movie. Our initial idea did not have a #MeToo angle, just an appreciation of female rock. We wondered if rock might not be more interesting seen from a point of view that nobody has ever used before. The point was to silence a certain kind of French rock to allow another, less conventional voice to be heard. Female rock’n’rollers seemed a good vector for that.

You have opened rock out to every category of popular music, along the lines of the music pages in Libération, which soon broke down barriers between anglophone rock and French-speaking pop.

F.A.: Our slightly provocative starting-point was a question: What if it wasn’t Elvis Presley who invented rock’n’roll, but Edith Piaf in 1949 when her lover, middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan, died? When she sings Mon Dieu, it is a scream in the night, an absolute sonic shock, universal gospel, blues…

B.: And a major happening. According to legend, this song was written for Piaf earlier in the day by Charles Dumont, her lover. Cerdan dies and that evening she sings her incantation to the heavens. There is a dramatic break that is very rock’n’roll and brings to mind the release of Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis. Like Elvis, Piaf produced a sensorial shock that created a before and after. Moreover, one of my obsessions is to convince the authorities to convert the house where Piaf was born in Belleville into a French Graceland.

Piaf inventing rock’n’roll is both a legitimate and arbitrary theory, which coincides with that of American critic Nick Tosches, who says rock was not born with Elvis, but died with him. He says that the golden age of rock was the 1930s-40s with bluesmen and r’n’b singers performing in segregated places outside of the white mainstream entertainment industry and the general public’s view.

B.: We might add Willy DeVille, who says that rock’n’roll is a French invention because it comes from bourrée and rigodon, exported across the Atlantic by the Acadians, and subsequently mutating in the swamps of Louisiana in contact with the blues.

F.A.: It’s all about the French Indians, the so-called Balajo Apaches! To ground the film in the legacy of Piaf is not such an exaggeration. In the chorus of women that we chose for this film, there is an obvious resonance between Piaf and Camélia Jordana, and between Barbara and Jehnny Beth. Everything stems from a mindset or urge where connections are made quite naturally. In the light of that mindset, you immediately see what is rock and what isn’t. Françoise Hardy is rock.

The film shows the evolution of showbiz as reflected by evolutions in society. Following this thread, the singers evolved from being manipulated puppets through a process of gradual empowerment. One might inflect that kind of preconceived narrative by suggesting, for example, that the Gainsbourg-Birkin couple may have symbolized male domination but it was first and foremost a mutual love story and a shared artistic success.

F.A.: The film does not make things out to be black and white. Lou Doillon is very clear when she says she grew up surrounded by strong, independent women, who all devoted their lives to men. When she saw Catherine Ringer from Les Rita Mitsouko or Muriel from Niagara on TV, it was a shock. Suddenly, it wasn’t a woman behind a man, but a woman equal with a man, or even in front of him.

B.: In production, I was very keen to eradicate any trace of masculinity, so the Gainsbourg clips were an annoyance. I wish we wouldn’t have shown even one male drummer but, of course, that was impossible, so I watered down my demands. Savages, Jehnny Beth’s group, is an all-girl band. They are amazons. That was perfect.

F.A.: The film questions the meaning of feminine, feminism, and gender issues. We started out exploring the emotion and impact of the music and we wound up transfixed by the power of their words. We got a real schooling. Beauvoir wrote, “Individually, feminism is a way of life ; collectively, it is a combat.” All our interviewees embody that magnificent line in their own way. They question the transformation of so-called male values into so-called female values and vice-versa, and they put men in their place.

B.: The structure of the film turned out to be unpredictable. The main lesson we learned is that the interviewees structured the film by giving it an opening onto something else. On stage, they invent a third way, a sort of human replicant that is a hybrid of masculinity and femininity, which escapes all the constraints and conventions of the genre. Girl or boy, who cares ! If the music’s got it, if the gig is a blast, gender is not an issue. In that respect, they made the movie.

The androgynous, queer third way has always existed in rock, if one looks back to Little Richard, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie, but it was always driven by men.

F.A.: Historically, we have gone from female performers, coached by men, to women who control every aspect of their persona, no longer defining themselves in relation to men or gender clichés. There were a lot of unplanned connections between contributors to the film. Each interview was one-on-one, and they all took place over a period of several months, but what they said resonated in the words of other interviewees. Unscripted, they each added a few brushstrokes to complete the big picture.

We could perhaps end on Brigitte Fontaine, who marvelously and humorously blows up all the codes, including those of feminism…

F.A.: Especially as she provides a superb conclusion to the film.

B.: She reasserts the fundamentals. Rock is a big “fuck” to the world, against your parents, social order, and good manners. Don’t try to understand because you never will.

F.A.: The film begins with Edith Piaf singing about death and ends with death singing. Brigitte only cared about the performance part. Talking pissed her off. She performs accompanied by Yann Péchin, Bashung’s phenomenal guitarist, and as she herself says, “I have died several times and come back to life. So fuck you.” The lyrics of the track she sings are “Fuck love, fuck death. And words, shut the fuck up.” That’s the end of the film.

=> The documentary Oh les Filles will be broadcast on TV5 Monde USA on Sunday, May 24, at 8:30 pm EST (5:30 pm PST).

=> Discover the Oh les Filles playlist on Spotify and on Youtube: