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When “Libertine” is first released in April 1986, in the same week as the “Cendres de lune” album, there are at first no obvious signs that it will become any more of a hit than the previous single. Radio and the public in general are slow to pick up on the track, in spite of the previous media interest generated by Mylène, and for a while it looks as though the new single is headed for an unremarkable destiny. Indeed, the track itself has been failing to make an impact for quite a while already: composed way back in 1984 by Jean-Claude Dequéant, the song, then called “L’Amour Tutti Frutti”, has already been turned down time after time by various record companies. Originally a rock track with totally different lyrics, something about the song nevertheless appeals to Laurent Boutonnat, and a deal is made to enable Mylène to record it as her own. Laurent goes to work on the song, re-arranging it into a poppy, bubblier version, discarding the original lyrics along the way and replacing them with his own. Displaying his talents as a writer, he comes up with a text that is full of sexual innuendos, and manages to namecheck the album in the opening line. Though Mylène will not play the part of lyricist in this case, she does contribute slightly during rehearsals, when she sings the first thing that comes into her head, “Je suis une putain” (“I am a whore”). This will later on be amended to “catin” (“harlot”) by Laurent, an old-fashioned expression more in keeping with the spirit of the song and, more importantly, of the upcoming video.
For there are, of course, two central elements that will turn the fortunes of “Libertine” –and those of Mylène, too- around: a change of hair colour, and a video. On the sleeve of the very first “Libertine” pressing, Mylène strikes a pose in an orange outfit; but more importantly, her hair is still brown, and pretty much similar to the “Plus Grandir” cover permed style. Nothing very striking, no “hook” to grab the public’s imagination. Encouraged by, amongst others, her manager Bertrand Le Page (himself a natural redhead), Mylène takes the plunge and undergoes a radical transformation. The results are stunning, and, with hindsight, pretty much self-evident. Although Mylène was clearly a beautiful woman before, the new hair colour fits her like a glove and further sublimates her beauty. But more than merely cosmetic, the change is also a huge step forward in terms of Mylène finding her own visual and artistic identity, and from that day on there will be no going back: although the shade will vary over the following years, Mylène stays and will stay a redhead for good, with one exception, much later in the mid 90’s. Around that time, Mylène, in temporary self-exile in the USA following the “Giorgino” debacle, dyes her hair platinum blonde, instantly making herself almost unrecognizable, no doubt her intention. Or perhaps she simply couldn’t stand being “Mylène Farmer” anymore, and saw this as a good way to take a break from herself. In any case, it all goes to show just how much her hair colour became linked to her persona, and what an essential role it has played in the forging of her musical identity.
And then there was, of course, that video. Although Laurent had already strongly hinted at his talent with the “Plus Grandir” clip, “Libertine” will constitute a veritable revolution in the audio-visual landscape of the time, leaving most observers slack-jawed with astonishment. It is probably fair to say, without any disrespect to the composer, that the song would have struggled to achieve the same iconic status had it not been so inextricably entwined with Laurent Boutonnat’s artistic vision. Once again, as for the previous single release, the video benefits from a storyboard treatment and a full cinematographic sensibility, although on this occasion the director has really gone all out to outdo himself. Shot over a period of four days in the château de Ferrieres for the main part (the bath scenes were filmed elsewhere, in the château de Brou), “Libertine” draws from various references including Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry London” as well as the back-stabbing shenanigans of 18th century nobility in order to deliver a masterpiece of short film. From the opening duel scene (with another appearance from Rambo Kowalski, this time as Libertine’s doomed opponent) until the blood-soaked finale, the viewer feels they are watching, more than a mere pop promo, a real cinematic, historical drama. Not surprising, when the scenario, written by Mylène and Laurent, manages to pack in intrigue, sex, death and generous lashings of violence within the 10 minutes 53 seconds running time. Extreme care is also paid to historical accuracy and to sets design, right down to the smallest details. Add to this a full team of actors and technicians comprised of around fifty people, all under the helm of the maestro Boutonnat, and it’s easy to see how “Libertine” came to leave its competition trailing in the dust. Just like “Plus Grandir”, “Libertine” will earn itself an avant-première showing, this time at the Mercury cinema on the Champs-Élysées on 18th June ’86. Something it amply deserved, in view of the quality and craftsmanship of the finished product.
And yet, one of the most surprising things about the whole affair is that “Libertine” was made on a relative shoestring. With a budget of around €75,000, less than that of a lot of other videoclips of the era, Laurent and his team deliver the ultimate lesson in getting value for your money. No doubt motivated by the director’s enthusiasm, and the sense of being part of something special, a lot of the cast and crew are reported to have offered their services for free. The young court ladies who come join Libertine in the tub for some bath frolics, for instance, were supposedly secretaries with Movie Box, the advertising company who co-financed the clip along with Laurent Boutonnat. Mylène also throws herself into the part with gusto: although a stand-in will be used for some of the more complicated fight scenes, she decides to suffer for her art, and so, for the sake of realism, she has no problem with being slapped across the face, for real, by her “rivale”.
Sophie Tellier has become something of a cult figure in Farmer history, and for good reason: her deliciously evil rivale, that she plays to perfection, is the ideal counterpart to Mylène’s heroine figure. Wronged, boiling mad and finally avenged (or was she?), her character is like the ultimate movie villain: mad, bad and definitely dangerous to know, we nevertheless wait for them to appear with some anticipation, and delight in their wickedness when they finally do. Mylène first meets Sophie at the Juan-les-Pins film festival in 1984, and it isn’t long before a working relationship develops, with Sophie becoming her personal choreographer. As well as teaching Mylène some moves, Sophie Tellier will also make two further appearances in later videos, as well as reprising her rivale role for the stage during the ’89 Tour, where she is one of the singer’s backing dancers. Originally from the world of dance, Sophie will go on to become a celebrated actress in France, on the screen and on the stage. Another familiar name also makes a surprisingly early appearance on the set of “Libertine”: Fransçois Hanss, who will of course in later years go on to direct several of Mylène’s videos as well as the “Avant que l’ombre…a Bercy” and “Stade de France” films, is assistant-director.
As the video finally hits TV screens in the summer of ‘86, the effect on sales is immediate: the single integrates the Top 50, not to depart until January of the following year. Climbing steadily, it reaches its peak position, number 9, and will shift around 280,000 copies in all, a huge jump in terms of sales, and exactly what the Farmer/Boutonnat tandem needed. Finally, Mylène is a star. She suddenly finds herself in high demand, and performs the song on numerous TV shows, no less than a total of 22 times in the later part of the year. One of the most memorable performances must be the one where Mylène sings poolside in front of two slightly camp men who dance while wearing nothing but tight swimming trunks: we thought nothing of it at the time, although it is true that the sequence has become gloriously kitsch over the years. But it’s not only on TV that Mylène is popular: in nightclubs everywhere, the reaction is the same: as soon as the first notes of the “Remix special club” ring out, people rush to the dancefloor. At the time, perhaps because Mylène has only just become seriously famous, and those who do not like her can still hope she might just fade away quietly soon, there is not yet the sense of snobbery that will develop towards her music in later years from some quarters. Although less likely to apply in other countries, this certainly holds true within France, where some view a career that mixes pop with success as incompatible with the idea of artistic merit. Most Mylène fans in France will have stories of being looked down upon or made fun of for liking her and her music. Sometimes the derision will even come from totally unexpected quarters: many years ago, I came across the “L’Autre…” collectors’ box-set in a small record shop in Nancy, eastern France. The shop owner’s first reaction to my enquiry about the price was not to tell me what he was charging, but to let me know, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of the artist: “Mylène Farmer? But it’s crap!” Not the greatest sales technique, and yet it worked, as I left with the precious box. Of course, his dislike for Mylène did not stop him from putting a fairly high price on the object, but as it was still within reasonable limits, and the box-set was ever so tempting, I had no option but to swallow my pride. But in 1986, at any rate, no-one is afraid to admit that they like “Libertine”, and the track is everywhere: on the radio, in clubs, in “boums”, and of course on TV, even if often in a shortened version although that is quite natural as most music shows’ time constraints make it impractical to show a ten-minute long video in its entirety every time. The shot of Libertine lying nude on the bed after her amorous encounter (the first time an artist offers full frontal nudity in a music video) is also often either excised or re-touched, so as to avoid offending sensibilities.
As befits the single’s success, “Libertine” will benefit from quite a few more formats than the preceding singles. In addition to the early “orange dress” releases, by now mostly gone from the shops, a new 7” is published to capitalize on the song’s new-found success. Not surprisingly, the new sleeve picture is a still from the video, showing Libertine with pistol aloft, ready to fire, and, not to be forgotten, with red hair. A new 12” is also released, in a totally different sleeve, a black background with white titles and a tiny picture of Mylène, the same as the one that graces “Cendres de lune” album cover, right in the middle. (The “version longue” presented on the original release has now been replaced by the “Remix spécial club”). And for the first time in Mylène’s career, it is not just one, but two 12” singles that are made available. The second version, subtitled “Bande originale du clip”, features the entire video soundtrack, and glorious, large picture labels – a truly beautiful object, that will rise in price accordingly through the years. The single is also released in Canada, once again on the Trafic label, inside a plain white paper sleeve. The first truly promotional items since “My mum is wrong” 12” also make their appearance: an “Avant Première” 7”, with custom “searchlights” pink and yellow sleeve, of interest for its promotional value, though perhaps less for its aesthetic one. There is also a promo Maxi 45 Tours (12”), more appealing as it has a Mylène-specific sleeve, slightly different from that of the commercial release as the tiny picture of the singer in the centre has disappeared.
“Libertine” will also be performed live several times: a full theatrical version on the ’89 Tour, with Sophie Tellier once again playing the part of the rivale; in 1996, with a rockier sound and slight oriental/Arabic overtones in the chorus; as part of a medley during the Mylènium Tour, and in full rock-on mode for the Stade de France and 2009 Tour concerts. It has also been remixed several times, most recently on the 2003 “Remixes” album, where Y-Front deliver a fun, colourful electro-pop version. “Libertine” will also be covered on several occasions, most notably by the serial Mylène-cover-act Kate Ryan in 2003. There also exists an English version, “Bad girl”, never released and long buried deep within Polydor’s vaults, both in single and extended versions. After years of unavailability and even speculation as to its actual existence, “Bad girl” finally surfaced online a few years ago, to the delight of countless fans.
Within the astonishing success of “Libertine”, Mylène and Laurent have succeeded in making the big impression they were after, but this is no time to be resting on their laurels: Laurent, especially, must show that he can stand on his own as a songwriter. Thousands of newly-acquired fans (and detractors) are eagerly awaiting to see what comes next: the pressure is on.