Monday, July 13, 2009

Cricket is rarely this funny

Amid the angst, the recriminations and the accusations of the "thrilling draw" in the first Ashes Test overnight, comes this dee-lightful homage to Victorian-born quickie Peter Siddle. Guardian columnist Barney Ronay explains why he would like to be friends with Siddle.
I love his ripplingly muscular head and the way, after he'd got Andrew Flintoff out, he didn't really know how to rearrange his features into a "pleased" expression and settled instead for looking pained. I also love the quietly guttural "UUNNCCHH!" sound he makes as he bowls, a deeply male noise, the noise of a man who has just dislodged a particularly stubborn wingnut on a vintage motorbike.
He also says some very, very funny things about Glenn McGrath. Much more like this from Ronay and he will have a cult following of his own, never mind Siddle. One Test match down, four to go.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

La crise...cinema?

My friend, a film reviewer, despairs of French movies. 

John, let's call him, is chugging back a minimum of four films each week. Some of them are from the Hexagon. Recently he slung me a fistful, including Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) and The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier). And for good measure the 1968 Gainsbourg-Birkin premier collaboration, Slogan

Slogan is the story of an advertising man's midlife crisis (la crise du moyen age?), which is, I admit, a pretty banal plot. Seriously wealthy and successful guy gets bored flying to Venice to pick up advertising kudos. Meets beautiful, much younger woman, throws over wife. Fellini's 8 1/2 it is not. 

Jane Birkin is 22, wears improbably short frocks and speaks with an appalling accent. Until she auditioned for the film, Birkin had never spoken French. (She admits to all of this in an accompanying 30 minute documentary.) So, a middle-aged man fascinated by a woman far too young to be seen with who quickly becomes an obsession. My friend John might suggest here that this pretty much the French film industry's calling card...but back to Slogan.

This is a curious film. Made in 1968, it's oblivious to the Paris riots, even though when the couple do eventally (inevitably?) move in together it's in the shadow of the Pantheon. Don't look to cinema for history, I guess. Serge Gainsbourg's idea of revolution was something else altogether I suspect. The film is clunky in the script and the production. The pacing is uncertain and even the music written by Gainsbourg fails to establish a clear motif or mood. Laboured might best describe the enterprise. But the film established them as the "it couple" of the time and changed Birkin's life. 

Neither Birkin nor Gainsbourg seem comfortable in front of the camera. There is often a self-consciousness that makes viewing the film uncomfortable. And yet...and yet. What starts as the lament of a middle-aged man turns into something much more interesting. Because as Evelyne, Birkin's ingenue becomes the rebel. There is one darkly funny, slightly cringe-making scene in which Serge introduces Evelyne to a score of friends and colleagues: "Please meet my little home-breaker" he says to a gallery of disapproving faces. Clearly infidelity is okay as long as it stays out of sight. Everything about their relationship put two fingers up to the ruling standards of the day. And their affair does catch a certain joy.

But the beautiful Evelyne quickly finds herself in the role of haus-frau. Her status as mistress is deeply uncertain. She demands that they have a baby, and that they marry. Both options seem rather quaint nowadays, but likely perhaps then. Not even frequent trips Venice can quell the resistance, her apparent freedom now another prison. In Venice Evelyne meets a muscular Italian whose only qualifications for her heart seem to be driving a speedboat dangerously fast through the crowded canals and clambering onto historic bridges. Bogans it seems are international.

Serge meanwhile seems impervious to what goes on about him. He never seems to really solicit our sympathy, continuing in his lugubrious way. Until Evelyne and the Italian elope. And then he turns very nasty indeed. But freedom won't be denied. What is most striking is the extent to which Slogan unwittingly provides the template for Birkin and Gainsbourg's own relationship, which lasted twelve years. Birkin sets out the influence of Serge Gainsbourg on her life with lasting affection and respect.

In the DVD's accompanying documentary, Birkin talks of their separation as like an adolescent revolt, kicking over the boundaries set up by a tyrannical parent. She also talks about Serge's peculiar attractiveness and charm. It's a fascinating relationship that began with Slogan. Birkin has made over 60 films: this one launched her career and changed her life. Even my friend the film critic must concede that you have to start somewhere.

Clearly Gainsbourg would have been a man that was difficult to live with. This little reflection by UK music writer Nick Kent on Gainsbourg's later years spells out just what a mess he became. (Oh that Kent could write with the same candour about, say, Keith Richard.) Serge Gainsbourg's life will get a more detailed examination when the biopic appears next year.