36. The new BB
Brigitte Bardot’s initials dominated the news and the thoughts of boys and men in the late 20th century. Now a new use for initials has appeared: Bertrand Belin. He is a singer/songwriter but also a dancer, comedian and actor. He is something of a dandy, and in that sense a male parallel to the image of Bardot. But his image is ‘soul’ rather than the $ which summarises the female form.
His voice has the dark brown quality of Leonard Cohen, with whom he shares some other parallels. His songs are abstract, dreamy and emotional. They are less about women and men, although the example I shall focus upon does feature him singing a duet.
When I first heard him singing, a few years ago, I was struck by his voice. Both deep and slightly fractured. He alternately sings and speaks his words. His enunciation is extremely precise: the plosives leap out. There is a lovely set of mnemonics that characterise the launguages of Europe:
‘Les italiens chante les mots; les Allemands crache les mots; les Anglais mange les mots; mais les Francais prononce les mots’
[I’m sure you can do the nationalities, but the four verbs are: sing/spit/eat/pronounce]
The tune has a delightful downturn at the word ‘go’ (which in French is ‘va’: the vowel allowing a downward bend in the tune). The first verse is sung by his co-star Camelia Jordana, and then Belin comes in with the words ‘si’l t’en coute’ (‘if its a burden to you’]. The ‘t’s in this opening phrase are shot out with great emphasis and precision.
If you think/believe that there
If you think/believe that there’s better for you
If it takes a cost on you to see a road
Without taking it
We’ll forget you
We can do that
But for the hour (for now)
For our happiness
Treat your farewells
There’s nothing for a party here
Just/only the nice gesture
Just/only the right word
Treat your farewells
We are waiting dear friend
Just the nice gesture
Just the right word
The translation is due to ‘Lyrics Translate’, though they may not be keen to accept the responsibility. The phrase I quoted above is given in English as ‘if it takes a cost on you’. This is better translated as ‘if its a burden on you’ as per my above version. But the English version of the first half of the lyric conveys the message:
‘if as seems likely you wish to leave us, please do so gracefully: using the mot juste’
Ironically the french phrase used by BB as his title conveys his meaning best, even in translation. The video, like most of Belin’s, has a dreamy quality about it. There is a circuit of figures in plastic rain macs that look faintly religious; they approach a wooden cabin in which we find Belin and behind him Camelia. He is apparently whittling somthing in wood. There is a third person in the video, an older man who accompanies Belin and Camelia as they walk through woods. The quasi priests launch a boat with nobody in it onto the lake. In a later shot it turns out that the older,silent, man is rowing it. He rows to an island, and then kicks the boat away, as though saying that he will stay there. He is shown leaning on a tree in the final scene. Presumably it is he who utters (one hopes) the ‘mot juste’ for which the song calls.
I am not sure about all the symbolism of the video, which would take a much longer essay to discuss, but the essence of it is that the two main protagonists (Belin and Camelia have parted from the island-marooned man by the time the song ends. We dont here the ‘mot juste’ but it hovers in the air.
As you will hear, the tune has a lovely lilt to it and a charming chorus. This is the case for most of his songs. In France his style has likenesses to that of Alain Bashung as well as in the Anglo Saxon world to Leonard Cohen. There is validity in both parallels. But Belin’s songs, although often featuring girls in the singing and videos, do not show emotional closeness. the girl stands behind and separate from Belin, not touching.
The spirit of ‘Mot Juste’ is a yearning for the right note of graceful farewell. Its emotion is at one remove from the interpesonal loves whe populate Cohen’s best known songs, as well as Bashung’s. Belin is in his mid-40’s and will one hopes carry on writing songs for many years yet. He has only been well known (in France) for a decade.
Another of Belin’s songs is ‘Entre les ifs’. This appears to be set in the First World War.
The lyric pictures the singer as on a hill from which he can hear the din of battle. He must soon take up his gun and bottle of wine and return to the slaughter. The intriguing title ‘Between the ifs’ combining French and English in the original, refers to the instability of his position: if he survives, if he goes back to the battle
While the parallels with Leonard Cohen and Alain Bashung are valid, my own choice of reference point for Beliln would be Paulo Conte. He is a different generation, probably about 80 now, and is my favourite singer songwriter. Conte uses the piano rather than the guitar as Belin does, which produces different kinds of melodies in a similarly deep voice. But both Belin and Conte sing of mysterious people and events. Conte was greatly influences by jazz from the USA.
Conte, like Belin (and unlike the other two) is a dandy. One of his less well known but brilliant song is called the ‘Green Milonga’, which refers to a hypnotic dance designed for him by some unknown person:
‘green milonga/you were written for me/my sensitivity/my polished shoes’
This might make Conte seem vain, but other verses refer to his ‘ham acting’. I have seen him perform a few times and he is indeed the dandy he describes. The lyric refers to the hypnotic control which the green milonga exerts on him. This one does not have a mysterious lady in it, as many of Conte’s songs do, but has a mysterious manipulator of Conte himself, forced to dance this milonga. If you listen to the clever piano figure which conjures up this dance you will see that it does call to mind a mysterious force.
Back to BB: I’m sure he has lots more surprises to spring. But even the brief overview of this post ssuggests what a power his music and words conjure up. One hopes that his translators in future are a bit more faithful to his lyrics. Long may the new BB flourish!