The mise-en-scene of suffering

Winter 1987

The French chanson offered a very limited sense of what it means to be French, a ‘poetic realist’ portrayal inspired largely by movies of the 1930s. Edith Piaf is the international emblem of this genre, representing the ‘chanson realiste’, a working-class, populist, melodramatic form which can be seen as playing into voyeurism directed at wretched lower-class lifestyles. Although many of the early songs were written by a man, Aristide Bruant, the genre soon became almost exclusively female, with songs sung by women such as Piaf and Frehel, whose own wretched lives and battles with ill-health mirrored the melodramatic suffering of characters in the lyrics. With minimal scenery and a trademark black dress and white makeup, their suffering bodies were literally placed in the spotlight, inviting audiences to speculate on whether they would even survive the performance. For such singers, the ‘authenticity’ of their suffering was seen as central, in order for them to ‘speak with the voice of their class’.

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