Madonna and France, a Long-Lasting Love Story

Whether onstage, backstage or behind the camera, there has been a French man or woman with Madonna at every step of her career. As the American star prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her debut album on July 27, several of the people she worked with have shared their experiences of this adventure in the documentary In France with Madonna, now available on TV5MONDEplus. Elise Baudouin, who co-directed the movie with Julie Delettre, tells us about this mutual love affair.
Madonna with Jean-Paul Gaultier, 1990. © Herb Ritts/Glamour

France-Amérique: What inspired this documentary? And what got you interested in Madonna’s love of France?

Elise Baudouin: I’ve been making cultural documentaries for several years now, mainly focused on feminism in pop culture. Working with Bangumi, the company that produced this documentary for France 5, I explored the life and career of Madonna, a global superstar celebrating 40 years in the music business this year. But we didn’t want to paint a simple portrait of her. We knew that Madonna loves France, that her children went to the Lycée Français and speak French, and that she was in a relationship with a French dancer for several years. But when we started our research, we realized that there was more than met the eye. This connection with France actually began before she even became Madonna, when she met Patrick Hernandez [the singer of the hit song “Born to Be Alive”] in New York City in the late 1970s. With his help, she realized that she had to sing, not dance, if she wanted to be famous. This was a major turning point in her career.

She spent six months in Paris at the age of 21, and it seems like France has been with her ever since. Is that a fair assumption?

She has maintained artistic and emotional ties with France throughout her career. French designer Maripol had the idea of dressing her as a bride and created her outfit for the MTV Video Music Awards on September 14, 1984. This was when Madonna as a media personality was born. Clad in white, perched on a huge wedding cake, she sang “Like a Virgin” and gave a sensual, scandalous performance.

Madonna in her Maripol wedding dress for the MTV Video Music Awards, 1984. © Globe Photos/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

Other French figures have helped transform Madonna, including fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, and hairstylist Julien d’Ys. Could you tell us more?

That’s right. We have to remember that the United States was shifting back to more conservative values when Madonna burst onto the scene. This was the Reagan era, which was accompanied by a certain puritanism. Madonna came to France in search of libertinism, a land of freedoms. It is no coincidence that Jean-Paul Gaultier was the one who gave her the outfit she wore as she became an icon. The corset with conical breasts is a symbol of feminine power, a form of political activism before its time – which is exactly what journalist and writer Leïla Slimani explains in the documentary.

The corset also defined Jean-Paul Gaultier’s career. Would it be fair to say that this was a win-win collaboration?

Absolutely. At the time, he was a young outsider in the fashion design world. He was shocking, he was scandalous, and he certainly didn’t have the prestige he has today. His intuition was right when he pitched his services to Madonna. Theirs was an artistic, almost political meeting of minds. Together, they created an extremely innovative masculine-feminine mix, a visual code that later inspired other singers such as Lady Gaga.

And they both share a certain taste for provocation…

Madonna was provocative, but we are now realizing just how far ahead of her time she really was. That’s one of the things we explore in the film; she even shocked the feminists of the time with her stances on the female body and sexuality – issues that are completely accepted today. It’s no coincidence, either, that Jean-Baptiste Mondino directed the music video for “Justify My Love,” which was shot in Paris at the Royal Monceau in 1990. The video was censored by several networks because it was too sexually explicit and because it was filmed in a way that made it difficult to define the gender of the bodies on screen. And this was all thanks to a French man! Two years later, she published the book SEX with the help of another French figure, art director Fabien Baron.

Is it accurate to say that France made Madonna?

It would be pretentious, and of course it’s not the case. Madonna works by borrowing from different cultures – Portuguese fado, for example, or Latin American music – and bringing fringe elements into the mainstream. However, France and the French have been present at every stage of her career. In fact, in the 2000s, the person who musically relaunched her career was none other than musician and producer Mirwais, who introduced Madonna to the electro scene. As Didier Varrod, Radio France’s director of music, says in our film, “he gave her a ticket to ten or twenty more years in the music industry.” This was the beginning of the French Touch, and Madonna embraced the movement, collaborating with Mirwais on four albums. She always knew how to reinvent herself. I think that the longevity of her career can be explained by the intelligence of those she has surrounded herself with – and the French have a special place in this artistic and personal entourage.

What was one of the most memorable parts of filming the documentary?

I love using archives, and we were lucky enough to feature a scrapbook by Julien d’Ys, the hairstylist who played a major role at different times in Madonna’s career. He was with her on the Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and took countless Polaroids backstage, which he then put into collages. It’s also great that we were able to show sketches of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s famous corset. In a way, this is the prehistory of a garment that has since been burned into the collective memory. I felt so privileged to be able to film these documents.

You paint a portrait of Madonna between the lines, through the French people who have worked with or who have been influenced by her. Why did you not just interview her directly?

We thought it would be impossible! But the main reason is that we wanted to make a film about how other people – the French in this case – have influenced her career, and how her career has influenced others. It’s interesting to have the perspectives of women like Leïla Slimani, Florence Foresti, and HollySiz, who explain how important Madonna is to them.

Are you a Madonna fan?

My co-director Julie Delettre is a fan, but I’m not. I’ve danced a lot to “La Isla Bonita” – I found it sensual and exotic – but I’ve never been to a Madonna concert. Even so, I have now understood just how much this powerful woman, who asserts her right to desire and pleasure, who never apologizes for embracing the full possibilities of sexuality, has influenced my personal construction. I didn’t realize it at the time. When I was wondering which pop culture figures have promoted feminism, Madonna came out on top. She paved the way for Beyoncé and all the others.

Aside from the title, of course, did the documentary In Bed with Madonna (1991) influence your film?

We rewatched it, of course. It’s a great documentary. Madonna was very generous by giving access to her personal and professional life during the exceptional Blond Ambition Tour. But the film doesn’t focus on her relationship with France at all. The only similarity with our approach is the stage costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and the first appearance of that conical-bra corset.

Madonna performing during her Blond Ambition Tour, London, 1990. Duncan Raban/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Can you tell us about one of the most striking parts of your documentary, Madonna’s two concerts in Paris less than a month after the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015?

She decided to go ahead with her concert at Bercy Arena on December 9, and something very powerful happened. She sang the first notes of “La Marseillaise” and the audience spontaneously started singing along. This was an extremely moving moment for her. She was deeply hurt by the attacks, like any Francophile, but she also represented everything ISIS hates. After the concert, she took her guitarist to Place de la République for another tribute to the victims: an impromptu, a cappella performance. It’s rare to see such a huge icon so close to her fans, in the street, with just two bodyguards. This was another sign of her attachment to France.

The film is very comprehensive. How did you research your subject?

We started by going through all the biographies and TV and radio archives. That’s how we came across Muriel Frimand, the artistic director who auditioned Madonna in New York in 1979, and who introduced her to Patrick Hernandez. We’re a bit like investigators! You make phone calls, someone puts you on the trail of somebody else, and so on. A lot of French choreographers and dancers have gravitated around Madonna over the years, and after you find someone’s contact details, you can start unraveling the thread. This is how we met Nicolas Huchard and Marion Motin, but we could also have talked to Christine and the Queens, who danced with Madonna, or Martin Solveig, or the Labèque sisters. Our list of testimonials was endless! And at every stage of Madonna’s career, there was a French person to tell us story.

Let’s talk about when Madonna was a guest on 7 sur 7 in 1992. It is surprising that she agreed to go on an hour-long French political news show!

Madonna was doing a world tour and appearing on one TV show per country. Jacques Metgès, who was her record company’s French press attaché at the time, suggested Anne Sinclair’s show. He sent Warner some VHS tapes of 7 sur 7 to show them what it was like, but no one in the United States took the time to watch them! Madonna had no idea that she was going to be asked about the war in Yugoslavia. At first, she seemed a little confused and probably quite annoyed. But as the show went on, she became more confident. She was seen as a dumb blond, yet 7 sur 7 changed her image in the eyes of the French public. She didn’t pretend to know anything about geopolitics, but she proved that this provocateur had an intellectual streak. What’s more, she had just released the book SEX and the album Erotica; everyone expected her to arrive on set in a bodysuit and panties! In fact, she arrived in a very sober outfit. She has never been afraid to assert her singularity, and France has a lot to do with that – which is exactly what came up in all our interviews.

In France with Madonna
is currently available to stream on TV5MONDEplus.