First Diva

Carla Bruni proves that it’s possible to be too French.

Carla Bruni. Click image to expand.
French singer and model Carla Bruni performs in Paris in 2007.

Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

If opinion polls are to be believed, the French are still ambivalent about their first lady, Carla Bruni. Bruni, of course, is a former supermodel and current multimillion-album-selling singer-songwriter, but she is still best-known for her avocation: wooing, and discarding, powerful men. Her conquests include rock stars (Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton); movie stars (Vincent Perez); film directors; writers; philosophers; and, in a previous foray into politics, Laurent Fabius, the socialist former prime minister. (Like many French of her generation, Bruni’s tastes have drifted rightward as the years have passed.)

Bruni officially became Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy * in February, the culmination of a whirlwind courtship conducted in full public view, complete with kissy-face photo ops in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza, strolls on the beach, and press conferences in which the président de la République ruminated on love and destiny and how great it is to date a smokin’-hot model babe. The affair, which seemed to flout all the cherished traditions of Gallic discretion, was seen by many commentators as evidence of the American-style tabloidization of French political life. The happy couple was photographed snuggling on the streets of Euro Disney, quand même.

But say this for Bruni: As a musical artist, she is quintessentially, almost comically, French. Her extraordinary looks are merely par for the course, a uniform of severely angled bangs and cheekbones passed down to Bruni from Juliette Greco, Jane Birkin, and other chanteuses. Her sound is similarly classique. Bruni sings folk-inflected pop songs with calming tempos and textures—an ideal soundtrack for a languid lunch on a cafe terrace. Her lyrics mix confessions and meditations on love with the literary pretension that is a hallmark of the chanson. “Raphaël,” from Bruni’s 2004 debut Quelqu’un m’a dit, is a part love ode, part post-structuralist grammatical essay. Bruni sings: “C’est le tréma qui m’ensorcelle dans le prénom de Raphaël/ Comme il se mêle au ‘a’ au ‘e,’ comme il les entremêle au ‘l,’ Raphaël.” (Rough translation: “It’s the dieresis in Raphaël’s name that bewitches me/ The way it mixes the ‘a’ with the ‘e,’ the way it entwines them with the ‘l,’ Raphaël.”) Bruni’s second album, No Promises, was an even more ambitious adventure in literary studies, with Bruni setting to music a dozen English-language poems by Yeats, Dickinson, Auden, and others.

Now comes a new record, Comme si de rien n’était, which I think it is safe to call—with apologies to fans of the Dear Socks, Dear Buddy audiobook—the greatest album ever released by the wife of a sitting head of state. It’s also a strong record on its own terms. Bruni writes fine, shapely songs and sings them in a voice that is, at its lower and upper limits, pure sexiness: rumbling and raspy on the low end, breathy and gasping when she reaches for the high notes. She has mastered the vocal tic pioneered by Serge Gainsbourg and the stable of female singers he produced: the whisper-singing style that makes every song sound like a slightly scandalous confession.

And scandal and confession, after all, are what Bruni is all about. Non-Francophone audiences may relish Comme si de rien n’était for its stylish, traditionalist sound—fingerpicked guitar set against strings, woodwinds, and soft-shoe percussion, in songs that move from blues-accented swing to cocktail jazz to ’50s-style torch ballads. But it’s Bruni’s lyrics that have made tongues wag in France. Comme si de rien n’était is, quite simply, a roman à clef about falling in love with Nicolas Sarkozy. The title—“As if nothing happened”—winks at the hullabaloo that has surrounded l’affaire Sarko-Bruni. The songs hide little, musing frankly on l’amour fou and Bruni’s own infamy. In “Ta Tienne,” she sings: “Let them curse me and damn me/ I don’t care, I’ll take all the blame.”

Bruni is a different kind of pop diva. Anglo-American female stars tend to revert to the role of victim: wounded warriors in the battle of the sexes, storm-tossed by their own emotions and the misdeeds of callous men. But Bruni plays a different type: the player. The cover profile of Bruni in the September Vanity Fair quotes a friend of the singer’s: “Carla is the hunter, not the hunted. … She is a female womanizer.” Bruni once confessed her longing for a man “with nuclear power,” an ambition she has now literally fulfilled.

The question is, how long will Bruni’s latest conquest, nukes and all, hold her attention? Even the sweetest and most lovelorn songs on Comme si de rien n’était hold hints of menace; the swooning single “L’amoureuse,” is a confession of puppy love, but also of romantic impetuousness—this is a woman who’s always falling in love with someone. Then there’s the luminous acoustic cover of “You Belong to Me,” the 1950s ballad popularized by Jo Stafford, which Bruni croons in English. She sings just a single verse, nine times in succession until the record fades: “See the pyramids along the Nile/ Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle/ Just remember, darling, all the while/ You belong to me.” Those pyramids can’t be an accident: Bruni is chuckling at the famous Giza photo op. But what of that “you belong to me”? Is it a pledge of devotion or an assertion of iron-fisted control, of dominion over a relationship that can be discarded on a whim? In his darker moments, Nicolas Sarkozy—13 years older and 13 inches shorter than his new wife *—must wonder. Bruni’s record, like her life, makes it clear that she is a rogue, capable of stepping from bed to bed and man to man at a moment’s notice—leaving the past behind as if nothing happened.

Correction, Sept. 18, 2008: The article originally misspelled the name of Nicolas Sarkozy as Nicholas Sarkozy. It has been corrected throughout the article. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also makes a playful, sarcastic, reference to Sarkozy being “13 years older and 13 inches shorter than his new wife.” According to their published heights, Sarkozy is 10.16 centimeters shorter than Carla Bruni. (Return to the sentence.)