Out from the Shadows: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Les Oxalis”
Following a cinematographic promenade through the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, composed of black and white, almost still, shots, the camera comes to rest on a black and white photograph left on a park bench. A cut brings the camera closer to the photograph and a second cut shows a hand holding it. The photograph depicts Charlotte Gainsbourg in bed, sheet pulled up under her chin, cigarette in mouth, unkempt hair framing her face, looking defiantly into the camera. The photograph is a well-known one of Gainsbourg taken by her older half-sister, photographer Kate Barry, daughter of Jane Birkin and composer John Barry. The camera tracks in and another image, that of a denim-clad Gainsbourg seated on an imposing sand dune, is superimposed over the shot of the hand holding the photograph. The original image begins to fade as the new one is slowly saturated with colour. The palette of this new image – the white-blonde sand, powder-blue sky and washed-out denim – is in stark contrast to the black and white of the preceding image.
This transition is a key moment in the music video for Gainsbourg's "Les Oxalis" and can be read as an allegory for an important transition in Gainsbourg's life. The lyrics accompanying this segment of the video are the refrain of the song, sung in English (the verses are all in French): "Take one is over/Bid adieu to you, ol' sister/Under cover/Going sober/Over and out." The song is an ode to Barry, who died in 2014 when she fell from the fourth-floor window of her Paris apartment. In an interview following her half-sister's death, Gainsbourg stated that it has never been confirmed whether it was suicide or an accident.1 In "Les Oxalis," taken from the album Rest released in November 2017, Gainsbourg recounts a visit to Barry's grave. If the subject matter is sombre the music is, perhaps unsurprisingly, upbeat; I say unsurprisingly if we recall Serge Gainsbourg's "Chatterton," a song about suicide set to a funk beat, an obvious intertext for "Les Oxalis."
Gainsbourg not only appears in the video for "Les Oxalis": she was also behind the camera. The music video was one of six that she shot to accompany her latest album, marking her directorial debut. The first video that Gainsbourg directed for the album was the title track, "Rest," although she had originally asked Lars von Trier to direct it. He declined but did offer to guide her through the process.2
The influence of von Trier's style is indeed present in the music video for "Rest" and he also has a strong visual presence in "Les Oxalis." The static shots of the stroll through the cemetery are reminiscent of the monumental prologue sequence of Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011): haunting, single-shot, digitally composited images which distort space and time. As Kristen Whissel, writing on Melancholia, remarks: "The live-action elements of five of these shots were filmed with a high-speed Phantom camera that dilates time and distills a brief moment of action into extreme slow motion."3 This dilation of time gives the sequence an otherworldly feel. Likewise, the sequence of single-shot images which comprises the first part of the music video for "Les Oxalis" has an ethereal, uncanny quality. Similarly, the stark, almost metallic quality of the black and white slow-motion shots call to mind the opening of von Trier's Antichrist (2009).
The location, the use of black and white and the cinematographic technique are complemented by visual, auditory and figurative references to shadows. Gainsbourg literally films shadows: shadows cast by headstones, sepulchres, trees and even her own shadow on the pavement. In the lyrics, Gainsbourg speaks of shadows: "Je cherche ton ombre [I am searching for your shadow]." The shadow [l'ombre] for which Gainsbourg is searching is at once something cast by a living thing, the indication of a presence but also a "shade" in the classical Greek sense: a ghost returned from Hades to walk briefly again among the living. Both senses are captured in the French ombre. Shadows are a recurrent theme when one is talking about Gainsbourg, particularly her music. Critics often speak of Gainsbourg being eclipsed by the shadow of her famous parents. Jeremy Allen remarks how on Rest she has "stepped further out of the long, eclipsing shadow of her folks"4; Jake Boyer refers to "the long shadow cast by her father"5; and Emily Zemler remarks that as "a musical artist, Gainsbourg has often lived under the shadow of her father Serge's success."6 Of her decision to write lyrics in French for the first time for Rest, Gainsbourg herself remarked: "In the shadow of my father, writing in French was something I never dared to do."7
The key transition in "Les Oxalis" takes Gainsbourg out of the cemetery – where she had been seen only a shadow cast on the ground or as a black and white photograph left on a park bench – and places her in a place where there are no shadows: the desert (the sequence was most likely shot at the famous sand dune in Pilat, France, but the images are intended to evoke the desert rather than the beach). With this transition, she leaves the space of the dead, stepping out of the shadows of her past to emerge fully formed in colour and movement against the vibrant landscape of sand and sky. The image of Gainsbourg seated on the dune recalls a well-known line from The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry: "I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams."8 However it is Camus' Myth of Sisyphus that this desert sequence most obviously references, particularly given the context in which the song was first written. As part of a larger discussion around despair and suicide, Camus famously evokes "waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines."9 It is a critical moment in which the individual has rejected despair and suicide as an option and moves toward the affirmation of life in the form of art. For Camus, the individual who emerges from these deserts is the artist. After receiving Female Artist of the Year for her album at the 33rd Victoires de la Musique (France's equivalent of the Grammy Awards) for Rest, Gainsbourg said in her acceptance speech "Moi, je suis vivante [I am still alive]" and that the album also speaks to life.