Essay

Ooh-la-la Lyrics

Carla Bruni doesn't mince her words.
Carla Bruni doesn't mince her words. (Ben Curtis - AP)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

After the early risers and the guests with children have left, when the party has been whittled down to the philosophers, the poets and the drunkards, I like to turn the lights low and listen to the breathy voice of the first lady of France. That would be Carla Bruni, the newly espoused wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, the recently elected president of the Fifth Republic. Nobody sings sexy better than Bruni.

When their marriage was announced Saturday, after a public romance that began less than three months ago, even Wikipedia sounded dizzy with the news: "She is the first First Lady of France to have participated in nude photo sessions," the Web site claimed.

But it's been sloppy and condescending shorthand to call her simply a "supermodel." A model she was, and super, too. But the Italian-born Bruni is also a compelling singer and a gifted songwriter, and a surprising master of le billing and le cooing that makes French song so erotic, and intimate.

Bruni, whose 2002 debut album has sold in the millions, writes lyrics with a delightful sense of the silly and the paradoxical. They are rhymed with inexorable cleverness and filled with that very Gallic metaphysical cynicism that has made love a delicious blood sport for the French. Think of what Noel Coward might write if he could channel the dangerous, bottomless sexual intrigue of the Marquise de Merteuil, the conniving predator (played by Glenn Close in the movie) at the heart of Choderlos Laclos's novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

It seems that every liaison has been a dangerous one for Bruni. Her name has been connected romantically with at least one former French prime minister, and Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Kevin Costner and Donald Trump. Also with the young philosopher Rapha¿l Enthoven, son of the writer Jean-Paul Enthoven, with whom she has also been linked. The liaison with young Rapha¿l led to Rapha¿l's divorce from Justine L¿vy, daughter of Bernard-Henri L¿vy, a French philosopher so famous he is known just by his initials, B.H.L. Even Laclos could not make this up, though Justine got her revenge with a novel that fictionalized her husband's infidelity, published in this country as "Nothing Serious."

Things with Rapha¿l Enthoven didn't last, but as a consolation prize, perhaps, there is the song "Rapha¿l," in which Bruni purrs over every letter in his name: "Four consonants and three vowels, it is the name of Rapha¿l . . ." She even trembles a bit over the "le trema, qui m'encorselle," which roughly translates as "the diacritical mark over the e which bewitches me." The basic gist of the song is that with Rapha¿l the real world disappears, while their bed becomes a world of its own. Rapha¿l, she sings, "has the look of an angel, but he's a devil of love, from his hips to his velvety gaze."

All of this is intoned in repetitive melodic figures made up of just a handful of intervals -- Bruni's range isn't very big -- set over a guitar and percussion accompaniment that is filled with pins and needles. When she sings the name Rapha¿l, or says the word love, it's with a little slur, as if both words represent slippery ideas. And each verse ends with an enigmatic, self-referential monosyllable: "Hmmmm."

Stare through your binoculars at this love song twittering in the branches, and you recognize the distinguishing features of the species. It is obsessively repetitive, with a childlike fixation on the body. It is not so different than a little ditty written by Gabriel Faur¿, a great master of French song, in 1882. Faur¿'s "Chanson d'Amour," for voice and piano, is set over a simple-minded, almost guitarlike strumming, with a similar recitation of body parts: "I love your eyes, I love your brow . . . I love your mouth . . ." Etc.

But while genetically connected to the tradition represented by Faur¿, Bruni's love songs are infused with a contemporary sense of malice. "Rapha¿l" is a love song and a prenup all in one. It is all erotic enthusiasm with a salient lack of promises, and you can hear it in Bruni's voice, which often goes flat and mordant even as she's coyly gibbering the standard vocabulary of French love poetry.

If Sarkozy has done his musical research, he should be aware of his wife's enchanting ability to turn the dramas of her sexual life into art. Love Carla Bruni, and you may end up as a lyric.

Which makes her a fascinating and risky new addition to the Elys¿e Palace. Ever since Helen of Troy, it's been common knowledge that it can be dangerous to bring a beautiful woman into the castle. But bringing a poet is potentially far, far more destructive. All the talk of Bruni as a supermodel makes the Sarkozy marriage seem like a standard issue trophy-bride narrative. It is far more interesting than that, and not just because Bruni is talented and comes from a wealthy and highly regarded Italian family. If there's a trophy involved in this marriage, odds are, Bruni will walk off with it. And Sarkozy may end up with his hips immortalized in a Billboard chart topper.

Polls show that the French are grousing about the marriage, though not for the same reasons Americans might (divorce, scandal, etc.). Rather, they are worried that Sarkozy is distracted from his political duties. There seems to be a collective intuition that they are in for a wild ride.

And they may well be. Bruni's primary lyrical obsession -- the erotic -- is a dangerous shadow of the political. What is freely celebrated in Bruni's world of sex -- restlessness, endless need, the naked politics of seduction, possession and submission -- are the stuff of politics, too. But in politics they must be suppressed, and the politician must seem to be steady and self-sufficient. His play for power is pursued behind the facade of a higher, selfless purpose.

There is an age-old worry that too much love will undo a man of action. He becomes sensual, lazy and given to spending too many nights on the sofa eating grapes dangled over his mouth by the hand of his mistress. Bruni, who once famously said, "I'm monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry," has emerged in the theater of French politics not just as candy on the arm of the president. She and Sarkozy are now almost allegorical figures, like Love in dispute with Glory, which were a common feature in French operas written in the great age of Versailles.

The difference is, Bruni isn't just the embodiment of Love, she's also the librettist and the composer of this little drama.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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