Bang Envy - Juliette Gréco

Juliette Gréco with her Daschund near St. Germain des PrésJuliette Gréco has always intrigued me. Her throaty voice and peculiar beauty are far too unsettling to be considered classically beautiful, but she created her own type of glamour and style by virtue of being against the norm. Her idiosyncratic lifestyle among the famous artists and thinkers of the mid-20th Century has made her a true Bohemian icon.

A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, Boris Vian, Serge Gainsbourg, and the great love of Miles Davis, Juliette Gréco is the original cool chick. Her signature fringe of bangs with a long hairstyle became the look of Existentialist girls the world over (and still is!), especially when paired with all-black clothes and a smoky café. This is the look Astrid Kirchherr was going for when she started wearing capes and tailored suits.

An actress and singer, Gréco is usually known as the chanteuse who sings "Bonjour Tristesse" at the very beginning of the film of the same name. But it was almost ten years prior that she appeared in Cocteau's haunting film Orphée as one of the evil Bacchantes.

While her film roles were few but significant, Gréco still continues to record and perform her music today, at the age of 83!

Juliette Gréco by Studio Harcourt Paris - the classic Existentialist look of the late 1950s.

Young and alone in Paris after World War II, Gréco started to sing in the cafés and jazz clubs in the St. Germain area. It was here that she met other existentialists, artists, and musicians, including Miles Davis. While I knew the two had been friends, I didn't realize that they actually had a romance too. I tracked down this excellent piece from The Guardian that Gréco wrote about Davis in 2006 that tells their story beautifully.

"And there I caught a glimpse of Miles, in profile: a real Giacometti, with a face of great beauty. I'm not even talking about the genius of the man: you didn't have to be a scholar or a specialist in jazz to be struck by him. There was such an unusual harmony between the man, the instrument and the sound - it was pretty shattering...... In America his colour was made blatantly obvious to me, whereas in Paris I didn't even notice that he was black. Between Miles and me there was a great love affair, the kind you'd want everybody to experience. Throughout our lives, we were never lost to each other."

Emerging from her dark hipness of the 1950s, Gréco's look adapted seamlessly into the pop glamour of the 1960s. Her hair became bouffant and her smile finally emerged. In 1965, she starred in the famous French mini-series called Belphégor, showcasing her elegance and grace.

Two images from Philips Records, and two stills from 1965's Belphégor.

Most recently the film An Education featured a few of Gréco's songs in the film, using them as a symbol of the bohemian freedoms that awaited just across the channel in Jenny's mind. (The short sequence of Jenny and David's trip to Paris is set to "Sur les quais de vieux Paris", making it a picture-postcard of the city in springtime.)

Despite their modernity for the time, Gréco's chansons have become tunes as ubiquitous to Parisian romance as anything recorded by Charles Trenet or Edith Piaf. Her famous hit of 1963 "La Javanaise", written by Serge Gainsbourg, is now considered a standard, being covered by both Jane Birkin and Madeleine Peyroux. Her strange and throaty style is indeed an enduring sound!

Juliette Gréco in 2009 from Pure People.

All images found online; final image from Pure People.

Film: A Summer Place

When The Traditionalist and A Continuous Lean wrote about Bert Stern's 1960 film Jazz on a Summer's Day last summer, I immediately added it to my Netflix queue. Of course, being a bit of a movie maniac, my queue is rather long, so I only watched this film this week. I should have known better. Based upon my own experience when writing about films, when someone blogs a film, it means watch it - now.

I've made this mistake before of course, with Days of Heaven and Un Homme et Une Femme, so I hope I've learned my lesson.

Let me just say that this little documentary is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Filmed during the 1958 Jazz Festival in Newport, RI, the film captures a weekend of American style, music, and relaxation that is just as vibrant fifty years later. In fact, I am surprised that this film isn't more of a stylistic touchstone, a la Grey Gardens, Petulia, or BlowUp. The style is just amazing, capturing a time of fresh-faced beauty and casualness that was still untouched by the Kennedy-era polish. Two days of music, sunshine, green grass, rocks, ocean, old cars, sailboats, beer, and cigarettes. If anyone has ever looked for a record of mid-century American sportswear, this is the film to watch. The hats, eyeglasses, colors, haircuts and even lipstick shades are clean and stylish, and while clearly of their own time, there is still a strong relevance today.

Still Image from A Continuous LeanIndeed, Ralph Lauren's entire body of work could be based upon this film.

Bert Stern adapted his experience with fashion and advertising photography to create a film that's really "moving still pictures," as he explained in the short feature on the DVD. It certainly shows. For me it was the colors that were so vibrant - a shot of a little girl running on a lawn in red shorts with a blue innertube is just gorgeous. A panning shot of a young woman in a turquoise blue-on-blue polkadot sheath with a yellow tweed hat and straw basket takes her in from foot to head, and literally made me gasp with delight. I also loved the colorful, wavy, moving water shots at the beginning which look strikingly similar to the Abstract Expressionist paintings being created at this time. Every frame is artistic, composed, balanced, and beautiful.

But with all of this beauty, there is still a relaxed easyness that captures the pure fun and enjoyment of the festival. People were there for the music and the togetherness. There is a staged segment of film that's a bit incongruous: a "party" with people dancing on a rooftop, and while it captures the overall mood of the weekend, I'd trade this bit of staged film in for more candid shots of the musicians and the audience.

As a fan of jazz however, the musical part falls a little bit short. Anita O'Day's set is fantastic, but most of the others, including Louis Armstrong's, have been shown to better advantage elsewhere. (True, some of my favorites, like Gerry Mulligan, did not get nearly enough screen time to merit a better judgment.) But this film is much more about the look and mood of a late-1950s summer day in America, and the music is more background to the visuals.

It's wintertime now, but if you want that summertime mood, I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy of this movie! It's a lovely cure for the winter greys...