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Paris pop paradise

It is the allure of the facade that attracts Sofia Coppola, Jarvis Cocker and other pop icons to the city on the Seine. By Eckhart Nickel

All photos © Trumpet Guy

In the world of popular culture, Sofia Coppola and Jarvis Cocker are a rare breed. What these two have accomplished in modern film and in music in their young careers is not only artistically relevant but also quite astonishing. Now the two have discovered France, at first through love. In Paris, Sofia Coppola married Thomas Mars, the singer of the pop band Phoenix and father of her daughter Romy, born last November.

Jarvis Cocker had already turned his back on England (as he remarked in interview: "with a quiet fart over the English Channel") as his band Pulp went on hiatus in 2002. He then married the stylist, Camille Bidault-Waddington, who worked on the cover design of Pulp's best album, "This is Hardcore" with photographer Horst Diekgerdes. The couple have settled in the rather raw neighbourhood of the Paris Gare du Nord train station where they raise their four year old son, Albert.

However, it is more than love that has kept the two in France. Surprisingly, there is an element in the relationship between France and pop which has received little attention until now : the facade and all its mystery. No other country in the world makes such a public effort to appear attractive as la Grande Nation. The parks are always in a flawless state, even the historical monuments along the Seine, blackened over the years by soot and cigarette smoke, shine from the flatteringly, soft-yellow lit rows of buildings. The blue illuminated Christmas tree stood in front of the police headquarters on the Pont Alexandre III, facing the shining gold dome of Les Invalides. When it was toppled by one of the terrible December storms, it was back in its place within the hour. And if you should take a stroll through the palace gardens of Versailles, if would come as no surprise to bump into the Sun King himself, so immaculately are they preserved.

Versailles gardens

It must have been on one such stroll that Sofia Coppola felt the irresistible impulse to set her new film exactly there: backdrop, light, set – it's all there except the costumes. All you need is to close the gates after the last tourist and not let anyone in for a few days, or weeks. The perfect facade and the all-pervading air d'histoire is transforming the whole of Paris into a pop paradise, where even traditional intellectual hangouts play host to the power lunches of the new culture industry.

So it was considered downright scandalous that Ms. Coppola and her entourage followed in the footsteps of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and chose (like Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane) to frequent the Cafe de Flore instead of the Deux Magots next door. The latter with its view of St. Germain des Pres always has a slightly higher percentage of tourists and curious eyes which can be enough to ruin the whole day for true ambassadors of taste. The awareness of being in an historical location affects one's very being. Or as Arthur Schopenhauer, who completed his studies of aesthetics in Paris among other cities, said so aphoristically, it is not that "he enjoys Paris" but that "he enjoys himself in Paris."

One could view this new film, if not the entire output of Sofia Coppola, as one long discourse on the facade which first begins to take effect at the French border. Marie Antoinette stands stark naked in a tent which marks the transition to her future culture. Even her favourite dog is exchanged, just as English words even today have to pass through the tight watergate of the Academie Française, where they lose their origins and something like "computer" emerges as "ordinateur". The images which show Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI sitting before never-ending courses of food are a huge celebration of ritual which accompanies the facade. The law of ritual reinforces the facade, which like pop, is a huge celebration of the superficial.

Her education in pop seems to shine through the most absurd aspects of Sofia Coppola's work. The music to the film "The Virgin Suicides", composed by the duo Air - which like the band Phoenix is also from Versailles -, is conventional by comparison. It too doesn't come from the time in which the film is set. In her newest film "Marie Antoinette", Coppola only uses New Wave music to highlight the decadence of the court of Versailles. In a key scene at a wild masquerade ball, the high society of Paris dance a sort of quadrille to the strains of Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Hong Kong Garden". It is surprising how well the music fits the rhythm of the ecstatic rococo world. This is a pop historic reference of the kind perfected by fashion designer Hedi Slimane in his work for Dior, where he quoted the narrow-cut styles of early eighties fashion. A few years ago he began to send actual Berlin street boys down his catwalks.

Pop tourism in France has a long history. And it is always a question of the right style. When Paul Weller grew out of The Jam and went on to found his sublime Style Council, the first 12 inch singles featured him and his partner, keyboard player Mick Talbot, in black and white photos, tinted blue, posing with their close-clipped hair, trench coats and loafers with cigarettes in a Parisian Bistro smoking or at a fountain near the Place de la Concorde. "Down in the Seine" opens with a celebration of French joie de vivre and a moody accordion melody. What today is as hackneyed as a beret and baguette, was in the eighties a conscious statement: We're no longer in England! We're not only separated by the Channel, but also by the length of our cuffs. That a was provocation in those days.

Twenty years down the line, Jarvis Cocker's going to France is again seen as a rude gesture to his politically hated homeland. In his latest video we see him before the music starts, with his trademark long greasy hair and thick-rimmed glasses, climbing out of a mini garden shed, and explaining that to encourage people to sing along with his new song "Running the World" he has put the words under the images, karaoke style. Then, as he turns to go back into his shed like a typical middle-class gardener, he sticks his fist in the air to proclaim the message of his song: "Smash the System!" In this context too, going to France means simply means switching to the aesthetic opposition.

When asked how moving to France has changed his life, he recently told the Parisian Rendez-vous magazine that he is finally eating better, drinking less, and smoking more. He has given up the regular cycling he did in London due to the dangerous driving habits of the French. He drinks a cup of coffee a day for the taste and as a reference to French lifestyle, he (still) reads The Guardian and Liberation (as a counterpoint), he fixes breakfast for his son and otherwise leads a very normal life. Bang Studios is located conveniently close in his Gare du Nord neighbourhood and Nicolas from Air, Bertrand Burgalat and the rest of the incredibly relaxed new Parisian Chanson School all pop round regularly.

And this is where Cocker met Nigel Godrich, who later called to ask if he might want to write texts for Charlotte Gainsbourg's new album. Or as Jarvis put it: "a drink, a couple of cigarettes and we've got a deal". This is not an insignificant aspect of the cultural scene in Paris: with the right friends everything is one big family reunion. Both Sofia Coppola and Jarvis Cocker have modelled for Marc Jacobs' exceptional fashion campaigns, photographed by Jürgen Teller. It's hard to decide which subject is more interesting, Sofia Coppola surfacing nude from a swimming pool or Jarvis Cocker cycling past a number British construction sites in Marc Jacobs' shoes and bag.

But no facade exists without concealing something. The surge of creativity which Cocker and Coppola are experiencing in France stems in all likelihood from the curious fact that no other city throws its foreign-tongued newcomers into colder water than Paris does. Down in the Seing part II. Left utterly to their own devices, they sit in a street cafe like an existentialist metaphor from Camus' 'Stranger and soon learn the art of waiting. First, for the waiter, then for the order and then finally for the right moment to send the wrong order back to the kitchen. Not long ago a friend explained her frustration at the otherwise exquisite Cafe Flore. Although she made it very clear that it was frothy milk she wanted, her cappuccino was served with whipped cream. The laconic reply of the clearly under-worked waiter was: "We always serve cappucino with cream".

But there are also rare moments when the inspirational facade actually corresponds with the content hidden behind it. With its excellent music programming, the radio station "Nova", where Jarvis Cocker fans tune in, stands for the new France. Which is why I will make an exception here and list its Internet site: It is one of the few stations where one is almost never tempted to look further on the radio dial. Bands like Nouvelle Vague and Radiohead seem to be in the studio most of the time, Laurent Garnier regularly spins house and techno tracks and in the wonderful show "Nova fait son cinema" listeners exchange tips on rare and interesting films. This is proof that an extraordinary programme creates an extraordinary audience. It's just a matter of getting things started.

France is in the process of creating an anti-Berlin. Or rather, Paris and Versailles are creating this, for a hint of hipness rarely survives the trip out to the suburbs. The world's writers and artists are drawn to Berlin where the old Baudelaire maxim still holds that beauty today is bizarre (in other words ugly) or interesting and dirty. Music, fashion and film are drawn to Paris, to pursue their work in freedom and impeccable style in front of perfect facades.

And if you want to know what the two cities think of each other, you should pop into the Paris Bar in Berlin and ask owner Michel Würthle about the Berlin Bar in Paris.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 13, 2007.

Eckhart Nickel is a freelance author and journalist.

Translation: Henrik Zimmer.

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