I am a bit of a Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin fan – surprisingly there are not that many Gainsbourg or Birkin films available in the English language so I am trying to make a bit of an effort to watch them in French and to review them here.
Melancoly Baby aka Mélancolie Baby (Dir Clarisse Gabus, 1979)
Basic plot: Olga is married to Laurent, who is devoted to his career and often leaves Olga at home alone when he travels away for work. Whilst she is rich and wants for nothing, she is terribly bored with life. When Laurent is working away she meets up with his colleague Pierre and through him meets Claude, who is unemployed and fed up of his situation. Can Olga and Claude help each other to get their lives back on track?
Cast: Olga – Jane Birkin; Pierre – Jean-Louis Trintignant; Laurent – François Beukelaers; Claude – Jean-Luc Bideau; Claire – Florence Giorgetti; Antoine – Tom Grès
Filming location: Lugano, Switzerland
Release date: 29 August 1979, Paris
Availability: Available fairly cheaply on DVD but in French language with neither English subtitles nor French subtitles for the hard of hearing. No extras.
The film in full – *SPOILER ALERT*: I always struggle a little bit with French films when there are no subtitles at all, but Melancoly Baby wasn’t too bad for me which means that for once I think I have pretty much understood the action (what little there was).
A film with a soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg and both Jane Birkin and Jean-Louis Trintignant in the lead roles is definitely something to draw me in, it’s a shame then that the film has very little going on in terms of action. That said, mainly because Jane Birkin is so pretty and has an amazing wardrobe for the film, Melancoly Baby is at the very least good to look at. But as far as the storyline is concerned, let’s go:
The back story is that Olga used to work as a translator and used to share an apartment with her friend Claire before she married Laurent and moved to Lugano. Laurent works for some kind of Trust and he is very dedicated to his work, often travelling and working away for extended periods. Whilst he is away Olga is left to her own devices, alone in the house with only her cats and the company of a house-keeper and her children (who seem to live on the premises). Olga doesn’t appear to have any friends in Lugano and as she no longer works, she doesn’t get out of the house very much.
It’s been a few years since Olga gave up her job as a translator and she now seems to be giving up on life too. She spends most of the day sleeping or reading and although she is not seen as an alcoholic she does seem to drink a fair amount, probably more out of boredom than anything. Although, of course, she could be using it as a coping mechanism – it isn’t so much that she looks terribly unhappy, she looks more empty than anything; on one occasion Laurent comes home and finds Olga asleep on the bed, when he climbs onto the bed to join her she simply lays there totally emotionless.
One evening Laurent brings his colleague Pierre home with him for dinner and also, seemingly, to pick his brains about work matters. Olga, although interested in the company, is terribly bored by the conversation. When she tries to change the tone of the evening by asking Pierre about his life and lifestyle, Laurent quickly takes the conversation back to work matters, which results in Olga sloping off and falling asleep on a chaise longue.
It has to be said that Jane Birkin appears to be presented as some kind of untouchable romantic vision of ideal beauty and Clarisse Gabus does a good job of this – if this was her intention – because at least initially it is difficult to tell which century we’re in judging by Jane Birkin’s costume and hairstyling and the slightly Edwardian chiffony fashion; and then there’s also something of the narcoleptic, the vapours and the smelling salts to Olga, the way she is always copping some zees and appears dead to the world at times.
When Laurent finds Olga asleep on the chaise longue he carries her off to bed and she barely rouses from her sleep. When she does she asks for another drink and tells Laurent, “I am so tired.” Tired of what? She has presumably done nothing all day.
If Olga is tired, maybe she is tired of having nothing to do but when Laurent tells her he has to go away to Paris on business she is annoyed and doesn’t even want to go with him when invited. He suggests she might like to see friends or go to some shows but she is not taken with the idea of going to Paris as she says she would most likely just stay in her room and read and sleep, which she does at home anyway. So what’s the point? The point is that Laurent suggested she could do something else, somewhere else but she just doesn’t want to know. When Laurent tells her she has changed and she’s not like she used to be, she gets annoyed with him and snaps that she has always been like that, that she will stay like that and that she is like that. She’s not a lot of fun, that’s for sure.
And then suddenly, out of the blue, she does something outrageous like pushing Laurent down on the settee and ripping his shirt off. There is still some passion in there somewhere after all.
Maybe the passion is difficult to see, because whilst Laurent is away Olga sees her old friend Claire and she tells Olga that she appears to have lost her personality and independence. Pushing all the right buttons, Claire asks Olga, “Am I annoying you?” No Olga says but it’s easy to tell that she’s uninterested in the conversation because she just drifts off into her own little world and looks sad.
At least Claire convinces Olga to take some kind of action in her life. When flowers arrive from Pierre, Claire tells Olga she should go and see him. The two women role-play with Claire pretending to be Pierre and Olga acting out what she will say to him. At last a smile crosses Olga’s face.
Olga goes to see Pierre, “because of the flowers”, and he welcomes her into the garden of his home where he has been sharing a quiet drink with his friend Claude. Claude is unemployed and uneasy about this situation, he really wants to be working and doing something with his life but he simply cannot find work right now. To him Olga appears to be bourgeois and privileged; she does not work and it’s not because she has lost her job, it’s because she doesn’t have to work. Olga tells Claude that “When you have nothing to do, you keep yourself busy with everything…” By this I assume that she means she keeps herself busy worrying about nothing in particular.
When Claude leaves Pierre and Olga alone for a moment, Pierre touches Olga on the back of the neck and she jumps up startled. Pierre asks her if she is afraid but she says she is not; he must know that her motives for coming to see him were not innocent, and yet the messages she gives out are contradictory. At this point she says she wants to go home and when he returns to the garden Claude insists on taking her home.
After Claude has left with Olga, Pierre shows that Olga’s arrival at his home and in his life has troubled him a little. He looks disturbed and as if he cannot settle. He makes himself an omelette (which looks pretty good, to the extent that when Pierre drops some on the floor he simply spears it up on his fork and eats it anyway, waste not want not!) but before finishing eating it he sits down at his piano and tries to pick out the tune of the record he is playing, which is actually the film’s theme tune composed and performed by Serge Gainsbourg.
Meanwhile Olga is wondering where Claude is taking her. He was supposed to be taking her home but instead he has taken her to a lakeside restaurant. The evening feels slightly uncomfortable, as if Claude has insisted they go on a date against Olga’s will. Claude asks Olga if she has any children, she doesn’t but her answer reveals a lot about her personality: “I want lots of things, but I’m wary of my desires. As soon as I get something, I’ve nothing to do anymore.” Claude has to point out to Olga that a child is not a “thing”. Olga simply says that with people, it is the same. Claude should listen to this warning but he doesn’t seem to be hearing it.
Claude and Olga dance and Olga tells Claude that she likes Pierre; Claude seems to be jealous about this but maybe this is the reaction Olga desired. When the dance ends, Olga walks away. She tells Claude about a man who used to watch her every day. He would just sit next to her at a cafe every day but never speak to her. Whilst Claude seems to want to rest his head on Olga’s shoulder, she looks uncomfortable with this and tries to take him back to her story about the voyeur, she wants to know what Claude thinks about the man. She tells him that one day she confronted the voyeur and demanded to know why he came there every day; he wouldn’t respond to her questions and she just wanted him to say something.
The next scene is what I refer to as a typical “Jane dancing” scene – as much as I love Jane Birkin she often seems to be involved in some kind of bad dancing scene in her films and TV shows and this strange sequence where she twirls around with her handbag and throws her hair all over her face like Cousin Itt kind of ticks the “Jane dancing” box for me:
Where the people in silver make-up and turbans have all come from remains unexplained. It’s obviously not Claude’s scene as he heads off for a coffee and a cigarette at the bar and is approached by a woman, but he needs to get himself off home to bed because he has some serious business to do the next day: job hunting.
Whilst Olga turns the evening into an “all-nighter” and is asleep, Claude is out buying the papers and looking through the jobs advertisements. This is where Olga and Claude differ; they may both be unhappy with their “inactive” lifestyles but Olga does nothing to make changes to her world. When Olga awakens, Claude is attending a job interview.
Olga finally goes out into the world but she appears to be an outsider – she sits alone in the park whilst around her the rest of the world seems to be active and having fun. She finally leaves the park when a man comes and sits next to her. You get the impression that she is some kind of exotic creature who never gets a moment’s peace without being badgered by strange men.
Olga goes back to the “all-nighter” restaurant as she thinks she may have lost her bracelet there. Antoine, a young man who works there, pretends to help her to look for it – it seems he had already found it and had it in his pocket – and then “finds” it on the beach. Olga is so pleased to have found her bracelet that she goes to the fun fair with Antoine (where they are harassed by a couple of thugs, one of them is on crutches!) and then later goes for a drink with him. He looks like he is a teenager and yet he too has fallen for the charms of Olga. She just wants to talk to him but he tries to hold her hand. Whilst she is at the cafe with him, Pierre arrives. He is on what appears to be a double-date with friends and he leaves them for a moment to come over and say hi to Olga. It’s an embarrassing moment.
Later Olga sees Pierre in a restaurant with his friends and watches him through the window. Too shy to go into the restaurant she telephones the restaurant and asks to speak with Pierre, who she asks to meet her outside for a moment. Pierre wants Olga to come inside and join him and his friends but she makes her intentions clear this time and tells him that she has not come to meet his friends. She kisses him and he returns the kiss, embracing her for some time. But Pierre must remember the confusion that Olga brings into his life and suddenly the mood changes – he quotes poetry to Olga (a poem called Baisers, in English Kisses, by Paul Morand), which roughly translated means: “The kiss causes such palpitations that in 4 seconds the heart beats more than in 3 minutes. Statistics show that 480 kisses shorten the life by a day; 2,360 kisses deprive you of a week; and 148,071 kisses, this is quite simply a year lost.” It sounds so wonderful coming out of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s mouth and yet it is highly unromantic. After delivering his cynical message to Olga, Pierre simply walks back into the restaurant leaving Olga there alone and confused and probably more than a little hurt.
That night Olga has a nightmare in which she is walking bare legged through swampy woodland, then Pierre arrives and she is naked. He carries her, still naked, up to the top of a tower and it looks like he is about to throw her off the tower when she awakens screaming.
The next day Olga is talking to the house keeper’s children and showing them the musical bird in a golden cage when the telephone rings – it’s Claude calling up with an offer she can’t refuse: he’s going to the job centre, does she want to come along? Olga accompanies Claude and looks very uncomfortable. Later they take a rowing boat and have a picnic. Olga tells Claude that she thought she had wanted to try writing at one point but that she was very frustrated by it because she felt like she had so much to say but was unable to say it. Claude asks Olga why she agreed to meet him – he knows she is a game player but it seems he is a little confused by her behaviour. She tells him that it pleases her but it’s mainly because the day before Pierre had been horrid to her; she asks Claude why he thinks Pierre would be so horrid to her. She is incredibly insensitive; like a spoilt child really.
Claude starts to open up to Olga and to tell her that he had been happily married once but that one day his wife suddenly left him and he never really understood why she had gone, even though she tried to explain to him in letters – the explanations she gave were contradictory. When Claude looks over to Olga to see what she makes of his story he sees that she is asleep, a bit like an “over Macho Grande” moment. Totally insensitive.
Laurent arrives home from his business trip and Olga is not there. The house keeper does not know where she has gone and Laurent seems a little annoyed that Olga is not there. When she arrives home, Olga goes straight up to her room without going in to see Laurent. As she lies down on her bed she finds the gift Laurent has bought for her – a handbag and some new lingerie. Laurent comes in to see Olga and they end up making love.
The next morning things seem fine but Olga starts to get tetchy over breakfast, snapping at Laurent about how she used to get breakfast herself before and how she used to work. She says she wants to go back to work and start translating again. Laurent doesn’t seem at all pleased about this, reminding Olga that she wants for nothing and in fact has everything she wants. This angers Olga very much – yes she does have everything but something is missing from her life; she has not found her place in the world, she doesn’t get to do things she wants to do and she’s totally fed up. Laurent thinks that Olga doesn’t love him anymore but she tells him that he simply does not want to understand and that he is pathetic. Olga feels that all people could say about her is that she is beautiful and that she sleeps. She forgot the bit about being annoying – I’d definitely say she’s annoying.
Then Olga has a moment of hysteria, pushing over chairs, smashing cups and plates, throwing a pot of jam at the wall, that kind of thing. She tells Laurent that she wants to live alone for a while and then she is gone.
It seems that Olga has gone to a convalescent home for a couple of months. Laurent is probably hoping that she will come back “cured” and everything will be fine. He even speaks to Pierre about Olga being away, without realising that there was something (however small) between them. Poor old Laurent just does not understand.
He goes to the convalescent home to collect Olga, who comes out looking much better carrying a red flower in her hand. She gets into the car and looks to be rejoining Laurent and going back to her old life. But she is not and when the opportunity arises she makes her break for it. Laurent stops at a service station to get something and he is only gone for a few moments when Olga moves into the driving seat and drives away without him. It seems that Olga is looking to start anew after all and without Laurent.
Melancoly Baby is not a bad film, don’t get me wrong, but there is very little action and it’s fairly slow paced; although I guess that slow pace is in keeping with the situation. The problem I have with Melancoly Baby more than anything is that I can’t feel much sympathy for Olga – I’m far more interested in Pierre and Claude. Yes, Laurent is selfish to want his pretty wife to be waiting at home for him alone, but Olga is just as selfish herself; she shows no interest in anything other than herself and her circumstances.
As a viewer you’re supposed to see Claude as some kind of kindred spirit for Olga – someone else who wants to do something with his life, looking to find his place in the world. But Claude is a much more sympathetic character and actively looking to improve his situation. Until that last moment, Olga does nothing to help herself. I find her self-absorption quite annoying – being so concerned about the voyeur’s motives for watching her when she should spend more time considering her future plans. I hate that she sees herself as being like the bird in the golden cage: I’m beautiful to look at but I’m trapped. The way she seems to play with people’s feelings is also a source of irritation for me.
Pierre, however, could have a film of his own and not just because he’s played by Jean-Louis Trintignant – although that helps. His character is far more developed and far more complex than Olga’s even just from the brief appearances he makes. In fact, without these glimpses into Pierre’s and Claude’s lives Melancoly Baby would have been much duller.
Don’t let me put you off seeing it – there’s the lovely looking Jane, a bit of Jane nudity (if that’s your bag), a Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack, the rather wonderful Jean-Louis and some nice clothes and scenery. And it’s pretty cheap to buy on DVD if you can understand a bit of French.
Other information about the film: According to Jane Birkin (quoted in Jane Birkin by Gérard Lenne, published by Henri Veyrier, p181) the film was originally to be called Olga dort (Olga Sleeps) but as she says “that was somewhat dangerous as a title”. Working on Melancoly Baby with Clarisse Gabus was the first time Jane Birkin had worked with a female filmmaker. Jane didn’t think she was right for the role of Olga as she didn’t think she brought anything to such a passive character: “I’m not beautiful enough… I’m not good in silent films, and Melancoly Baby was almost a silent film.” But the character of Olga struck a chord with her somehow: “It’s true, I’m the bird in a golden cage, and I’m bored with myself… all alone I wilt.”
If she didn’t speak too highly of her own performance in the film, Jane at least had kind words for Jean-Louis Trintignant: “…always full of courage and kindness, [he] had come to [make the] film between two car races. …There was a fantasy where Jean-Louis Trintignant had to carry me naked to the top of a tower. What a laugh we had! Because I’m very heavy, despite appearances, I have big bones. He had to cross a slimy swamp like that too… What an atrocity!”
It should be noted, however, that if Jean-Louis did have to carry Jane naked through the slimy swamp, this bit was cut from the film as the nightmare sequence in Melancoly Baby shows Jane stumbling through the swamp alone, and partially dressed.
When Jane described the film for Jean-Philippe Thomann’s book Jane Birkin (Éditions PAC, Paris, 1979, p121), she said the following: “I am a very rich and very depressed woman whose husband wants to lock her up like a madwoman, but I’m not mad. I no longer want him. That’s all. It’s a film done on a shoestring, yet it gives the impression of being rich thanks mainly to the astonishing woman [director Clarisse Gabus] who leads the whole thing.”
One of the themes used in the film was re-used by Serge Gainsbourg in the 1980s when he wrote an album for his daughter Charlotte; it was turned into Oh Daddy Oh.
All attempts at English translations of the film dialogue and the quotes from books have been done by me – they may not be perfectly correct, so do bear that in mind!