French pop music hasn’t traditionally done very well on this side of the channel. Sure, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, and Charles Aznavour are quoted as influences by David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond and a few other respectable British singers, but they are more of a cult thing or a hidden influence, than a massive chart success. Claude François, or Cloclo as he was known, isn’t even a cult success over here, but is arguably as popular in France as the more serious chanteurs.
From his first hit in 1962 to his early death aged 39 in 1978 Claude François was a chart sensation in France. Cloclo tells the story of his life from childhood to grave. Played with zest by Jeremie Renier, Claude is best known in the ‘le monde Anglo-Saxon’ as the man whose song Comme d’habitude was given news lyrics by Paul Anka and turned into Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Phil Hogan wrote in The Guardian that the film is another superhero movie, but with a cultural, rather than comic book superhero. You might also say that Cloclo is a monster movie, or at least a version of Frankenstein.
Of course, Claude wasn’t created in a lab. He was born in Egypt where his father worked for the Suez Canal authority. But in 1956 Colonel Nasser nationalised the canal and the François family were expelled. They settled in Monaco where they lived in penury and the bullying Mr François insisted his son get a respectable job in a bank, while Mrs François gambled away any money they did manage to earn.
This difficult upbringing moulded young Claude into someone of ferociously ambition. The movie traces his rise from these difficult beginnings to massive stardom, which is admittedly a fairly ‘superhero’ story arc. But it is also not afraid of revealing Cloclo’s huge slobbering ego and freakish desire for total control. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he goes about stomping on the delicate lives of those in his path, especially women. So not entirely heroic there.
Cloclo is long, two and a half hours long, but director Florent-Emilio Siri maintains enough pace so it doesn’t feel a drag. Besides man was quite a card. A man of extreme vanity, he grasped the vital importance of image early on in his career and then played the media like a virtuoso. He had a nose job in the early 60s, way before the procedure became a reality TV staple. This obsession with image led to him hiding the existence of one of his two children, because he felt that fans would think a man with two children was a family man, rather than a stud who happened to have a child. When the existence of the second child was finally revealed, he skilfully manoeuvred what could have been a huge PR blow to his advantage.
Apart from his ferocious desire to succeed, the defining characteristic of Claude’s life, was his dysfunctional relationship to women. Female fans kept an almost constant vigil around his Paris flat, covering the walls of the corridors in graffiti and greeting him with kisses on his morning commute to work. Wives and girlfriends didn’t fare well – insanely jealous of their success, he tended to lock them up or otherwise try to prevent them from living independent lives.
Despite this control-freakery and general prima donna-ish, tantrum throwing behaviour, Renier makes it hard to entirely dislike Claude. He could be charming, his work ethic was admirable, and more than anything, he was at the beck and call of a series of obsessions that ruled him. If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a truly pitiable creature, Claude was also too damaged to be entirely monstrous.
Then, of course there is the music. Claude was on record as saying he had a voice that sounded like a duck (a line which appears in the film), but the French didn’t seem to agree. At least according to the film, there doesn’t appear to be a time when his fame waned. So, what was his shtick? Once he found his feet, Claude’s tracks were a mix of US hits recorded with new French lyrics and original croony numbers, before progressing onto cheesy disco in the final two years of his life. The guy was not particularly cool. Wikipedia describes him as a cross between Tom Jones (presumably before he gained his current hip status) and Cliff Richard, which rings true. Renier does a remarkably good job as the singer, strutting about like a pro and leaving even this Anglo-Saxon in no doubt how he managed to attract the droves of fans.
Although Cloclo doesn’t shy away from portraying the faults of its hero who is someone who lives a life choc-a-block with incident, at times it can feel as if there’s something missing. His father is severe, but no nutter. The guy is not so much haunted by demons, as we’ve come to expect of the subjects of music biopics, as merely someone who is extremely driven and monumentally selfish. Once he’s got going, even Claude’s career barely seems to suffer any undue difficulties. This tale is not the vie en rose of the Edith Piaf or the vie heroique of the Serge Gainsbourg movie, but un vie fromage – but then French cheese is the best in the world.