The French have always been fine connoisseurs of romance, with an impressive musical repertoire to reflect their expertise. Here’s our pick of some of the most powerful French songs about love – they’re not always soppy, sometimes they’re strikingly cynical or empowering.
Christophe Mae is an acoustic singer-songwriter whose songs are stained with heartbreak yet stitched together with hope. His voice blends a patchwork of passionate outcries and soft sighs, carried by the roll of a southern French tongue. In ‘La Rumeur’ he insists upon ‘opening up the heart, otherwise I’ll sink’ (‘J’ouvre mon cœur […] Pour ne pas sombrer’). This combines with an earthy root melody and the occasional harmonica to fashion a raw and authentic style.
Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer who composed explosively theatrical yet thoughtful songs. It’s difficult to not watch his moving live performances without shedding a tear. In ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, he begs in desperation for his lover to not leave, offering a gift of pearl-shaped raindrops picked from a land never graced with rain (‘Je t’offrirai des perles de pluie, venues de pays où il ne pleut pas‘).
This cheerful and catchy tune is from the epic new wave film ‘Jules et Jim‘ by François Truffaut. The calmness of Jeanne Moreau’s voice masks a chaos of collision, where lyrics compare the repeated separation then getting back together, the promises to stay before again parting ways, to a dangerous whirlwind romance (‘Chacun pour soi est reparti dans l’tourbillon de la vie’).
This is the kind of song you imagine listening to while raindrops run down a bedroom window, waiting for the storm to pass. Carla Bruni’s ‘Quelqu’un m’a dit’ offers a promise, wrapped up in a beautiful, melodious picking pattern and an uplifting, airy chorus, that someday this rain will stop. There’s the flicker of hope that a lover is still interested: (‘quelqu’un qui m’a dit que tu m’aimais encore, serait-ce possible alors?’), interspersed with metaphors about the fleetingness of life being like wilting flowers (‘nos vies […] elles passent en un instant comme fanent les roses’).
Indila’s ‘Dernière Danse’ is incredibly dramatic, with despair and desperation at every turn. In this song, she fearlessly embraces the darkness that threatens to swallow her by dancing with the elements: ‘I stir the sky, the day, the night, I dance with the wind, the rain’ (‘Je remue le ciel le jour, la nuit, je danse avec le vent la pluie’).
In a sweep away from soppy love songs, there are also songs like Tal’s upbeat ‘Des fleurs et des flammes’. It’s actually a fiercely feminist song, stressing that woman is more than a flower to be picked and played with at will: (‘Nous ne sommes pas […] Des fleurs qu’on collectionne, des jouets pour les hommes’). In fact, she has no interest in flowers, she prefers the fierce determination of flames: (‘A la beauté des roses qui se fanent, je préfère le sublime d’une flamme’).
It’s a complete cliché, but it would be an insult to not include it. The heavy-whispers of this French duet written by Serge Gainsbourg and sung with Brigitte Bardot in 1967, conceal a powerful cynicism towards conventional romance: ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ means ‘I love you… me neither’. These lyrics are to be read in the wake Bardot’s third husband, millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs, having showered her home with hundreds of roses from his helicopter before they married in 1966, only to begin cheating in 1967. In 1969, Gainsbourg re-recorded the song with English actress Jane Birkin.
Not all the best love songs have to come from France. Sometimes, they spring from other French speaking countries. Amadou & Marian are a musical duo from Mali, and their song ‘Je pense à toi’ is a brutally honest declaration of love, stripped back to the bare fact: (‘Je pense à toi, mon amour, ma bien aimée. Ne m’abandonnes pas, mon amour, ma chérie’), thenwrapped up in a bouncy melody.