A Stylistic Bent
Pierre Grimblat's Slogan – the film where stars Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin fell in love, and soon after married – owes a lot to Richard Lester's own mix of fashionable cinematography and bonkers editing in films like The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), and his Beatles couplet, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965).
On one level, Grimblat's movie is a satire on the pretentiousness of popular commercials made by creative admen trying to keep up with what's new now, and five minutes from now. The ad spoofs for men's cologne and women's undies peppering the romantic plot are brilliantly absurd, and Grimblat often intercuts print magazine stills of posing models between the behind-the-scenes footage of commercial director Serge Faberge (Gainsbourg), as he sets up shots and provides motivation for his actors and blank-faced models.
The machinations and insanity of achieving something voguish are also captured in a great sequence where Faberge and his cinematographer film two actors from inside the hood of a car driving madly down a snaking highway, and one gets a sense Claude Lelouche wasn't the only speed-obsessed director who liked fast cars on film, as all the car and Venice boat scenes in Slogan have vehicles driven with extreme recklessness.
Grimblat also interjects the absurdity of Faberge's working environment into the character's personal life by having the control freak snap his fingers to eject characters from scenes because they're annoying him; whether it's an extension of Faberge's God complex from the film set or Grimblat making sure we don't take the film seriously, it certainly adds to the film's weird style.
Taken in with current aesthetics, Slogan feels very modern because it compacts its narrative by hacking out sequences we know, as wisened filmgoers, would be dull and whiny and formulaic; it's no different than the bonkers pacing in the actioner Crank (2006), a film that maintains its own absurd worldview.
Grimblat's decision to treat the romance (initially) as a parody means he saturates the romantic interludes with massive close-ups and reaction shots of the burgeoning lovers (heightening their giddy banter at one point with whip-pans, until the couple kiss in a two-shot), and the whole film begins as a media, pop culture, and romance spoof… until, as viewers, we realize the chemistry between actors Birkin and Gainsbourg is very real, and very charming, and perhaps natural, because according to a recent documentary by filmmaker Philippe Labro (Legende: Serge Gainsbourg), Grimblat's original proposal to Gainsbourg seemed inspired by the composer's own persona of a 40 year old, playing Pygmalion with young beautiful women before destroying each blissful lifestyle.
Whether Grimblat was aware of it, the emotions from his leads slowly rise above the satire, and the film runs into problems where scenes plotted out as humorous – like Faberge introducing Evelyne to his social clique with a singular and oft-repeated phrase, “My little home breaker”; and an angry dinner scene in front of the TV with a ridiculous ad jingle playing in the background – become compressed little snapshots of a disintegrating love affair.
Faberge ultimately devolves into a scheming, cruel bastard, and a concluding argument in a car gets very nasty, and pretty much quashes any sympathy we may have for the once-charming bigamist.
Slogan's shift into melodrama and realist social commentary feels out of place, so while the finale ultimately collectively liberates the director, his long-suffering wife, and the naïve gamine (Evelyne) he stole from her first fiancé, it kind of ends the film on a bit of a downer, since neither's next step is presaged (although the final shot infers Faberge's cyclical, addictive, womanizing behaviour remains quite resilient in spite of the recent heartache).
Most of the film's dialogue was looped in the studio to cover up edit flaws, location noise, and continuity gaffes, although Grimblat doesn't really care if mouths are moving in car shots, and spoken words are sometimes heard in place of sound effects and music.
Gainsbourg's original score is comprised of an original tune (very complimentary towards the film) as well as some satirical percussion tracks, although most of the cues tend to repeat their opening bars until an inevitable fadeout or straight cut.
The only clever cue that has some subtextual bite is played by an orchestra in a later Venice scene where Faberge and his wife put on a fake ‘all's well' façade, after Evelyne has fled to London. As the orchestra plays a theme variation, one hears a somewhat camouflaged version of the Dies Irae doom and gloom liturgy from the brass, exaggerating Faberge's sadness into bathos.
Disc 1 of Cult Epics' new 2-disc set (replacing a prior single disc release back in May 2008) offers the film with its original French mono track, and English subtitles that are mostly accurate (althouth they miss a few naughty words here and there).
While the colours are fairly strong in the transfer, one suspects the label was stuck with TF1's own NTSC downconversion, which is very flawed. Details are a bit soft, and there's obvious shimmering, strobing, and blur when the camera pans with onscreen movement. Grimblat does play with film speeds with his fake ads, and in a few dramatic montages, but it's clear the DVD conversion to 30 fps isn't all that accurate, as scenes to run a little faster.
Disc 2 features all the goodies present on the French Region 2 set from TF1, and for Birkin-Gainsbourg fans, that makes this set a must-have. Prior interviews with Brikin regarding her career and relationship with Gainsbourg have tended to be brief; she's always been very open, affectionate, and passionate, but the lengthy segments in this set are very casual, and often give Birkin a lot of space to reflect on her very unique life as a Brit who became a star in France, all because of Slogan.
Prior to starring in Grimblat's film, Birkin had appeared in small roles, notably in the topless studio tussle in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1965), and was also known as Mrs. John Barry for a time. During shooting, she was referred by Grimblat to director Jacques Deray, who in turn cast her in La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969). By the end of 1969, the previously unknown actress was in two very striking films, and was feted with Gainsbourg as France's super-couple.
The archival interviews in the extras show the couple as being very much in love, as well as a bit dizzy from all the media attention, and Gainsbourg is quite open in recalling their first impressions: "She thought I was ugly, and I didn't think she was great looking." Director Grimblat recounts having to set up a dinner date which he abandoned purposely so the two stars would fnd some common ground and stop being so miserable on set. The trick worked brilliantly, which makes clips from Birkin's actual audition all the more amusing: Gainsbourg disliked Grimblat's choice, and refuses to even look at his co-star, whom he genuinely drives to tears in the test.
Whether one regards Birkin as a waif who parlayed her vulnerable persona into a successful career or as a gifted actress, one has to admire her instincts in learning French phonetically for the audition, and becoming quite fluent by the time the stars were doing press interviews.
The first interview set on the DVD has Pierre Lescure discussing with Birkin and Grimblat casting choices, her audition, and her naivete in being unfamiliar with Gainsbourg's huge stardom in France. Describing her co-star as "sexy, disturbing, and magnificent," she provides some observations into Gainsbourg's complex persona, and furthers her impressions in the second interview set; while not necessarily revisionist, her views are emotionally biased in lauding Gainsbourg's widespread and immortal influence in so many aspects of French culture - a view with which non-fans of the famous singer/composer may disagree.
In both interview sets, Grimblat reveals himself as a marvelous wellspring of very funny anecdotes. He offers tales of Gainsbourg visiting the Piscine set, as well as crashing an actual commercial awards ceremony with a small camera crew for Slogan's opening scene. One of the funniest, howver, involves meeting a depressed Francois Truffaut in a hotel, as he was being brutalized by phone calls from a sadistic producer.
Grimblat also recalls the creation of Gainsbourg's score and the themes, written in a patchwork of notations on worn paper, that were expertly orchestrated by the composer's collaborator, Jean-Claude Vannier. (The film's vocal theme was released as a single, but the entire score remains unreleased.)
The interviews are notable for also providing a glimpse into the world of commercials, of which Grimblat was a major player with his ads for Renault (several of which are archived on the DVD in a sample reel from his years with Publicis). Grimblat describes Slogan as a film comprised of connected ads, and although one can apply that to the structure of each scene, his technique is a major stylistic breakthrough in chronicling a fiery and later wilting romance that was, according to the director, inspired by a personal experience.
To fill out any remaining details, there's a separate interview with Frederic Beigbeder, author of the satirical novel 99 francs, made into a film by Jan Kounen in 2007. Beigbeder cites Slogan's most influential qualities, as well as its place among the few films made about the advertising world. He also regards Grimblat as a visionary, as well as an example of the need to be a multi-faceted artist (writer, director, producer) in order to survive, let alone make a living.
After acting in La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969) and Slogan, Jane Birkin did a bit of a Burton-Taylor routine by appearing with husband Serge Gainsbourg in several eclectic films, including Les chemins de Katmandou (1969), Cannabis (1970), 19 djevojaka i Mornar (1971), La Morte negli occhi del gatto / Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973), as well as the TV productions Melody (1971) and Bons baisers de Tarzan (1974).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan