Brigitte Bardot ordered Serge Gainsbourg to make up for their damp squib of a date in 1967 by writing her the most beautiful love song he could imagine. He came up with Je t’aime and with Bonnie and Clyde.
If a sprinkle of French adds an exotic or intellectual flavour to an English song, what does a well-placed English word say to French listeners? Serge wrote his song in French, but chose to use the English word policeman instead of policier or gendarme. Why? Remember, this was the 1960s. France was shaking with riots and with riot police:
The 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, hit France as hard as anywhere. Gainsbourg was inspired to base his love song, loosely, on Bonnie Parker’s rather pedestrian poem The Trail’s End. Very loosely. The romance and energy are all Serge’s. Lines like C’est pour Bonnie que je tremble aren’t in the original. They’re pure Gainsbourg, not Parker. More Je t’aime, Brigitte than anything else.
Why use policeman? I’d be interested to know what you think. I’d guess that the English word policeman stands out in the middle of the French lyrics and keeps the song firmly tethered in 1930s Gangster America. A policeman, in the context of Bonnie and Clyde, is simply a distant character in an American film. Not a force of law on the streets of 1960s France.
Something like this:
Gendarme or policier would have pulled the song back towards present day France. Gainsbourg wanted it clearly rooted in the USA and in his audience’s memory of the Bonnie and Clyde film.
Policeman was an especially lucky choice on the song’s release in 1968. Gendarme carried an extra layer of unfortunate memory and meaning for French listeners after the violent Paris riots of that year.
Policeman is a straightforward word, easy for any member of a French audience to notice and to understand. With none of the distraction of their own politics to tarnish it. Distant yet clear. Perfect.
Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde is a love story, pure and simple. It has to exist outside the realms of everyday reality. The two lovers represent undying love under pressure from the law. Love until death. Remember, Brigitte was still married to the millionaire Gunter Sachs when she and Gainsbourg had their passionate affair. The law was against them in life and they play it all out in their video.
If you’re not a native speaker of English: here’s a question for you – when Serge sings the words Bonnie and Clyde or policeman, why is he right to stay with a French pronunciation instead of an English one? His audience is French and he needs to stay close to them by pronouncing the words in a way they recognise easily. His audience understands him better when he pronounces the words as they would themselves. They’re used to talking about the Bonnie and Clyde film as Serge does. He wrote the song, so his pronunciation fits the music exactly. If you pronounced policeman in the usual English way, it wouldn’t fit his music.
The music always leads, the words must always follow.
© Sing Better English, 2015