Have the French Lost Their Je Ne Sais Quoi?

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
Jan. 24 2013 1:26 PM

Waiting for Bardot

Have the French lost their je ne sais quoi?

French actress Brigitte Bardot rehearsing for a TV show, December 1967.
Where, s’il vous plaît, is the Brigitte Bardot of today?

AFP/Getty Images

French people have—let’s face it—always been rather annoying. Is there a person alive who, at one time or another, has not been on the receiving end of that legendary Gallic snottiness? But in the past it was always easy to tolerate the disdain and the aggressive sense of French superiority. Why? Because, back in the day, they were superior, in every way.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Jean Paul Gaultier, the French were dans le driver’s seat in most aspects of la culture. And now they aren’t. Small wonder Gerard Depardieu has barreled off to Mother Russia.

Let’s start with la musique. Edith Piaf j’adore! Vanessa Paradis j’adore aussi. Throughout the last century France has produced a creative and diverse stream of groovy hit-makers: Juliette Gréco, Dalida, Jacques Brel,  Brigitte Fontaine, Sylvie Vartan, Johnny Hallyday, Sacha Distel … the list is très long. And the frogs, I must emphasize, were exporting all this pop around le monde, as exemplified by the fact that my sister and I, across the channel in rain-lashed Britain had a 45 of “Je t’aime” by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.

In 1969 this louche anthem to eroticism was banned by the BBC. We bought a copy and memorized the entire thing, including, much to the horror of the upstairs lodgers, the orgasmic finale.

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Ok. J’admit that French pop is not exactly heavy, man. We are not talking Led Zep here, but, nonetheless, those French hits had their own unique yé yé essence. With their dark circles under their eyes and their Gitanes-stained teeth, singers like Jacques Dutronc and Barbara exuded poetic sexiness with a whiff of Jean Genet. The pop-iest pop songs are tinged with Left Bank bohemianism and a certain tristesse.

Even the naff ’80s stuff retains this maybe-I-didn’t-bathe-today-so-what? eccentricity. Remember “Voyage, voyage” by Desireless and “C’est la ouate” by Caroline Loeb?

Hygiene aside, the French always knew a good tune when they heard it. My all time faves, for their sheer earworm catchiness are as follows: Françoise Hardy, at the height of her beauty, singing “Comment te dire adieu” with a massive orchestra

and Jean Schultheis, at the height of his afro, belting out “Confidence pour confidence”:

While le pop français was majeur, it was nothing compared to le cinema, which, if I am not mistaken, is a French word, like discotheque. (See, I told you French culture was magnifique.) In the last century it was possible to live on this planet and only go to French films, such was the variety and fabulosity of the output.  The most creative directors in the world—Godard, Truffaut, Demy, Varda, Tati—produced a torrent of masterpieces and mistresspieces. And today?