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Womanhood by excellence: ‘Oh Les Filles’ by François Armanet in Cannes

The greatest compliment I can receive as a woman is "You look like a rockstar!" At once irreverently free while also unapologetically embracing their sex symbol status, female rockstars like Debbie Harry, Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde were my role models while growing up. In his wondrous new rockumentary 'Oh Les Filles' journalist turned filmmaker François Armanet shows us the French new wave of rockstars who have and will continue to inspire generations of women to come.

Photo © Sonia Seff, courtesy of Incognita Films
Photo © Sonia Seff, courtesy of Incognita Films

My favorite film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival I didn’t even watch in Cannes. It wasn’t in the official Competition every journalist covers, or even in Un Certain Regard, the sidebars Critics’ Week or Directors’ Fortnight. In fact, it was screened for free, for everyone to watch as part of the Cinéma de la Plage, on the beach. And I didn’t get around to watching it until I got back from the famed festival on the Croisette, when I finally clicked on a link I was sent by the film’s relentlessly wonderful publicist. She kept insisting it would be a favorite film of mine. Oh, boy, how very right she was!

As I sat spellbound in my armchair, catching the bigger than life personalities captured onscreen for ‘Oh Les Filles’, I couldn’t help but feel proud of being a woman. In fact, if you ever need a dose of self esteem or a boost of encouragement at the true beauty of being a woman, I urge you to watch François Armanet’s masterpiece. He himself is a journalist and former chief editor at Libération, one of the most exciting newspapers in France. And he co-wrote the film with Bayon, who founded the paper’s music section in 1981.

Imany in a still from ‘Oh Les Filles’

This film proved two great points. One, that male directors and writers can do as much justice to women’s stories as any woman filmmaker. They just need to love their subjects. And two, that journalists really do make great documentarian since they have the organizational skill to create a full story, filled with facts and fun, but also know how to bring out the best in the interviews they fill in throughout their film. It’s clear that Charlotte Gainsbourg, Brigitte Fontaine, Françoise Hardy, Imany, Camelia Jordana and Vanessa Paradis, among the others featured, really felt at ease with Armanet and shared their inner wisdom without holding back.

Camelia Jordana in a still from the film

At the beginning of ‘Oh Les Filles’ Armanet asks what if rock had really started with Edith Piaf, onstage in NYC in October of 1949 as she publicly mourned the death of her lover in a plane crash that day, by dedicating to him a heart-wrenching ‘Mon Dieu’? In the film’s press kit, the following idea is proposed “if history books date the birth of rock’n’roll to Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in 1954, this universal plea sung by Piaf, the Belleville diva, is the baptismal act of rock passion.” Rock passion — what a concept, and what a completely and perfectly Woman anthem.

Brigitte Fontaine

It is clear from the various interviews featured in ‘Oh Les Filles’ that music is just one part of these exceptional women rockstars’ lives. For Imany there is her lifelong fight against the disease of Endometriosis and public activism for the understanding of its causes and effects. For Camelia Jordana, it is all about bridging the cultures of her French birthplace with the Algerian Arab-ness of her parents.

For the daughter of extraordinary parents Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, music allowed her to come to terms with her inner demons. She realized early on that “I could be ugly and pretty,” she says, depending on the day, her mood or the activity. And that’s such a huge lesson for a woman anyway! Accept yourself, no matter what is staring back at you in the mirror. It’s all passing… Beauty or not. Her sister Lou Doillon is also in the film and her insight are equally important, since they provide the yin to Charlotte’s yang. The elder in the group, Brigitte Fontaine laughingly calls herself “an old bag,” while she clearly shows us she isn’t. Her lesson is that rockstars never stop being that, even when age catches up with them.

Vanessa Paradis

I also loved hearing from Vanessa Paradis about what it’s like to be a woman rockstar, when performing. While she admits to acting “manly” on stage, she also doesn’t mind if men want to look at her butt — “they are welcomed!” she candidly admits.

And perhaps that’s where the biggest lesson of ‘Oh Les Filles’ lies. While it’s OK to adjust to fit into this strange world of our, it’s also important to remember that, no matter how powerful, successful or strong we become, we are still women. And we should celebrate the fact that our femininity may make us vulnerable at times, yet always lovable.

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