Friday, June 29, 2007

The Great Ones Vol.2 (Side A Track Two) Vanessa Paradis

It is a tough job being an American Vanessa Paradis fan. For starters she is known by the majority of people in this country just as Johnny Depp's significant other, and then of course the fact that nearly all of her recorded and cinematic works still remain unreleased in the United States. It is especially hard to be a fan who lives just about an hour away from where Johnny Depp was born as inevitably I am always meeting up with people who have seen or run into Depp and my question is always, "Was Vanessa with him" which always gets me a completely clueless and mystified expression.
I first discovered Vanessa in the early 90s when she released her self titled English language album, one of her only works that briefly made a few waves here in the States. The Lenny Kravitz produced and written album is still a favorite of mine, with it's delightfully retro, nodding nature and striking cover shot of Vanessa looking like she had transported from a dream of what the sixties were supposed to have been. I became so taken with this very warm and extremely talented performer that I spent much of the nineties attempting to track down all of her works, a feat not easily achieved in Southern Kentucky.
Vanessa was born about six months before I was and even though we come from totally different worlds, I have always felt a kinship to her. There is something about the shared cultural radar of people born between 69 and always reminds me of a line from Arthur Penn's NIGHT MOVES where Gene Hackman says, "I bet we saw some of the same movies." Indeed I did grow up with many of the same films and music that Vanessa did, so whether she is involved in returning Delon and Belmondo to the screen together or covering an obscure Big Star song live, I am always right there with her.

The early part of Vanessa's career was a whirlwind of her getting discovered on French tv at the age of 8, to releasing a chart topping album and single at 15, to finally closing out the first part of her career working with none other than Serge Gainsbourg. Her early recordings are the typical light pop one would expect from a teenage French star of the eighties. From the beginning though there was something special about Vanessa. Perhaps it was her voice, a sweet and totally charming untrained sounding throwback to singers like France Gall, or maybe it was that gap toothed smile that would warm the coldest of days. Whatever it was, the young Vanessa Paradis became one of the most recognizable French personalities of the late eighties and her career would quickly morph into something much more than just a teen-pop sensation.
Jean-Claude Brisseau's 1989 feature NOCE BLANCHE isn't a perfect film but it is a daring one and it would show Vanessa as being a young actress of considerable talent. Making her film debut as a troubled teenager who seducers her teacher, Vanessa is extraordinary in her first role. Coming across as a world weary and self destructive nymphet, Vanessa would win her first Cesar for NOCE BLANCHE and it signaled her crossover from teen idol to one of the most serious young actresses in France.
Oddly, Vanessa put her film career on hold after NOCE BLANCHE and went back into the recording studio to record the great VARIATIONS SUR LE MEME T'AIME, her first truly grown up collection and a clear sign that she would be around for a long time. The album didn't sell as well as her previous work, which showed that not everyone was ready to accept the new Vanessa Paradis, but it did gather some critical acclaim and led the way to the Lenny Kravitz project.
I am not a huge fan of Lenny Kravitz's work but I love his production and songs he delivered for Vanessa's self titled 1992 album. They were a couple at the time and their chemistry really shines through on the collection. From the unforgettable opening track, NATURAL HIGH, to BE MY BABY, to the surprising Velvet Underground cover, VANESSA PARADIS has aged very well and it sounds a lot fresher than most of the records that were coming out in 1992. It would be a huge hit all throughout Europe but would fail in the United States. I have always suspected that if it would have been released just a few years later it would have proved a sizable hit here, but the retro seventies cool the album projected was just slightly ahead of its time.
Vanessa would then release a live album documenting the exciting tour that supported her self titled platter, and it is a great live album featuring a confident Paradis and a smoking band. She really started to show her diverse musical tastes in this tour and recordings from this period have her covering everything from Big Star's majestic BALLAD OF EL GOODO to a daring take of The Beatles OH DARLIN.

1995 would find Vanessa returning to the big screen in Jean Becker's underrated ELISA. Working opposite Gerard Depardieu, Vanessa turns in another bold and moving performance that compliments NOCE BLANCHE perfectly. Becker's film is a really fine work that has been seen by far too few people in the States. Vanessa was inexplicably ignored at the Cesars for this role but she did get a lot of critical acclaim and the film was a sizable hit in Europe.
1997's UN AMOUR DE SORCIERE would prove to be the first major slip up of Vanessa's career. This silly and disappointing film could have been an extremely successful and delightful one but it wastes every ones considerable talents, including Vanessa, who at least looks lovely in the role.
Vanessa would recover beautifully with her next role in UNE CHANCE SUR DEUX which would team her up with not just one but two of the most legendary and admired legends in French film history. I wouldn't necessarily call Patrice Leconte's action packed UNE CHANCE SUR DEUX a great film but there are very few moments in modern French film that match seeing Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo together again. Vanessa, playing a thief who finds out that her father is either Delon or Belmondo's character, appears to be having the time of her life and I get so much joy out of watching the three of them together that I can overlook that the film, perhaps, isn't as good as the three of them are. UNE CHANCE SUR DEUX is one of the funnest French films of the late nineties and like the majority of Vanessa's work, remains unreleased in the United States.

The year and a half following UNE CHANCE SUR DEUX would prove a peak time for Vanessa with the release of the magical film GIRL ON THE BRIDGE and her masterpiece album, BLISS.
GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (LA FILLE SUR LE PONT) would team Vanessa again with Leconte and it would be her first film to get a pretty wide release here in the States. I got to see this lovely black and white film on the big screen in Louisville in 1999 and I must admit it to being one of my favorite theatrical experiences. Vanessa is breathtakingly good in this Golden Globe nominated film and its unavailability on DVD is unacceptable. Vanessa and the film received many accolades and she was nominated for yet another Cesar, the film was a huge hit throughout Europe and did surprisingly well in its short run through the States.
Vanessa's album BLISS is one of the great albums of the decade and one of the most little heard. Vanessa would add songwriter to her resume with this striking collection and like everything else she has attempted, she thrived at it. From the startling first single COMMANDO, to the slinky funk of LA LA LA SONG to the most effective ballads she has ever sung, BLISS is an impressive collection. The album would briefly top the French charts but would surprisingly not sell as well as expected.
Vanessa would spend much of the next year preparing for Terry Gilliam's ambitious DON QUIXOTE which would have given her the opportunity to work with her awesomely talented Depp, as well as appearing in a hugely high profile English language production. The film famously fell apart though and a striking looking Paradis can be seen in the incredible documentary documenting its collapse, LOST IN LA MANCHA.
ATOMIK CIRCUS is the one major film of Vanessa's that I haven't seen so I won't comment of it or its soundtrack which Vanessa appears on. I have seen 2004's MON ANGE and while it isn't one of her strongest films, she remains one of the most gifted actors on the planet even when she is working with material clearly not as good as she is.
2007 is shaping up to be a big year for Vanessa and her fans. She has just wrapped up filming of Guillaume Nicloux's much anticipated LA CLE and her new album is due out later this year. The album's title track and first single DIVINE IDYLLE is one of her great tracks and is garnering much attention in Europe. This propulsive and catchy title track to her upcoming album is much like Vanessa herself, an undeniably powerful time capsule of the last forty years in a deceptively simple and small package.

Even though Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors and a guy that I consider one of the coolest on the planet, I have to admit that if I ever do run into him on one of his Kentucky visits that my first thought will be, 'is Vanessa here.' For two decades Vanessa Paradis has been one of the most fascinating figures in popular culture to me, the unavailability of her work in America is baffling and more than a little troubling. Hopefully one day that will be rectified, in the meantime her import dvds and cds often pop up on ebay reasonably priced and there are several online importers that also carry her work. I recommend BLISS or her live AU ZENITH album as a perfect introduction to her music and GIRL ON THE BRIDGE as the ideal first look at her as an actress.

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