Although Serge Gainsbourg and love Jane Birkin had appeared in a string of films since their magnetic collision in Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan (1969), Melody was a bit of diversion from their feature and music collaborations, since it’s a series of interwoven videos inspired by Gainsbourg’s album Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971).
For 1971, it’s a novel concept to bring visual life to an LP, but even more surprising are the short film’s amazing visuals that director Jean Christophe Averty crafted using a wealth of video filters, overlays, camera movements, and chroma key effects. Averty applies his visuals in tandem with the increasing tone of Gainsbourg’s songs, which more or less chronicle an older man who has an affair with a young girl.
Clearly drawing from his real-life relationship with Birkin, each song is comprised of steady, sometimes brooding poetic delivery, with refrains timed to the phrase repeats of each song, while Alan Parker’s buzzing guitar accompanies and wiggles around Gainsbourg’s resonant voice. The bass is fat and groovy, the drums easy but steady, and the periodic use of strings or rich vibrato makes this short a sultry little gem.
The vignettes for the LP’s seven songs are hypnotic, and one doesn’t need to understand French to get into the short’s narrative; the visuals are so strong that they perhaps give the prose an overwhelming trippiness.
“Melody,” the first song, has Gainsbourg driving his Rolls Royce at night, and stopping when he realizes he’s knocked over a pretty leggy waif riding her bike. “Like a doll who’s lost her equilibrium,” he picks her up and takes her to the car, where he asks her name (“Melody,” says an enamoured Birkin, “Melody Nelson”) and rides off with him into the darkness.
Averty dramatizes the story through a mesh of pans across the Rolls, portrait close-ups, and blobs of iridescent lights that streak across the screen like fireflies, whereas the next song, “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” has Gainsbourg strutting back and forth over a kaleidoscope of op-art heart rings that pulse from black and white to red and black and blue, while the refrain, “Melody Nelson,” has the camera zooming in and out of Birkin as she headcocks to her name, and hip swings between poses. It’s the cheesiest of the videos, but because the pair perform the song with such earnestness, one is somewhat compelled to reign in the giggling.
“Valse de Melody” is the first sign where Averty starts to play with layered textures, and has the dancing over famous paintings (including Dali’s ‘melting watches’), with periodic overlays of the two in the Rolls Royce.
“Ah !Melody” is striking for its simplicity: two rows of block letters spelling M-E-L-O-D-Y and an array of abstract patterns in black, red, and blue wafting between each other over a white background. Gainsbourg and Birkin appear separately over the block letters, sometimes spread over two letters, as when Birkin dances.
"L'hôtel particulier" is even more impressive in the way Averty has the couple walking and wandering through more paintings, with sections overlaid to give their positioning a 2-D feel. Birkin remains silent, but her fans will probably enjoy her bird-like poses and swinging in an absurd outfit that mostly consists of a long short, a belt, and skimpy unmentionables. The video closes with the couple kissing, and a return to the large numbers and heart silhouettes that opened the video over a black background.
“En Melody,” the album’s funkiest tune, is mostly instrumental, with fat bass, electric guitar, and drums driving the piece while Birkin’s giggles and shrieks pop up between the guitar licks. Averty’s use of moving patterns, textures, art, stills, and overlays is jaw-dropping.
The final tune, “Cargo Culte,” has Gainsbourg describing his turmoil after finding out Melody’s plane crashed, and the brooding piece, with its eerie guitar, tympani hits, and unsettling bass are enhanced by extremely complex visuals. The overlays are beautifully coordinated with the song’s meandering mood, and Averty literally conjures up all of Gainsbourg’s memories (moments from prior videos), but with extreme artistic discretion.
The moving collage is like an Adobe Photoshop reel, with multiple layers becoming increasingly dense, particularly during the song’s short choral bursts which accentuate visions of a dancing Melody until she curls up and freezes, closing the piece with Birkin’s final restatement of her name.
The critical praise for Gainsbourg’s album has endured for several decades, but perhaps more than when it was broadcast, Averty’s short should be regarded as a milestone in the artistic use of then-primal video effects. There’s the overlay of psychedelic patterns for an aggressive trippy experience (as in Tony Palmer s’ Tangerine Dream – Live at Coventry Cathedral 1975) that we recognize as cheesy, dated, and quaint, but Averty’s Melody is very, very modern. The only mind-blowing moment comes in realizing all those beautiful visuals are pre-CGI.
An important time capsule as well as a major reference for early videotape effects, Melody is available as part of the Region 2 PAL set, Serge Gainsbourg - D'Autres Nouvelles Des Etoiles (2005). Averty’s prior short, Salvador Dali: A Soft Self-Portrait (1970), was previously available on VHS.
Gainsbourg and Birkin’s other filmic appearances include Slogan (1969), 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