Dedicated to Rohanne, the baddest bitch ever to write about the French New Wave.
This blog post was brought to you by 28 backers on Patreon. The Patreon has been doing incredibly well lately. For as little as $1 a post, you can read Dreams of Orgonon early every week.
François Truffaut’s film La Mariée était en noir, or The Bride Wore Black, frequently juxtaposes images of marital domesticity with the unhappiness of women. Its opening sequence depicts topless photographs of a woman being mechanically laid down by a machine. She stares dispassionately at the camera, perhaps itching to get away from a lecherous photographer. This introduce’s the movie’s theme of women’s antipathy towards men who objectify them, as actress Jeanne Moreau’s character, a bride who becomes a widow when her husband is shot to death immediately after their wedding, exacts violent revenge on her husband’s killers. To do so, she often goes through degrading transactions with these men, having tedious dinner dates with bigwigs or posing for their drawn portraits. Men and women have negative relationships in The Bride Wore Black, defined as much by the absence of supportive figures as its surplus of exploitative ones.
The films of the Nouvelle Vague, or the 1960s French New Wave which includes The Bride Wore Black, are walks through the zeitgeist of 1960s France, storming through the decade’s cultural and sociopolitical changes and exploring them with fluidly montage-centric and social realist filmmaking. Many New Wave movies tell stories of women trapped by misogynistic social dynamics. Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie showcases the misfortunes of an abused-housewife-turned-sex-worker at upsetting length, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 is about the terror of a woman faced with the possibility of imminent death, and François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim follows the dick-waving battle of two men over a woman. The New Wave is where the misogyny of male intellectuals clashes with burgeoning new modes of feminism, and finds itself both caving to women’s liberation and exposing the weaknesses of its own gender politics.
So the influence The Bride Wore Black had on “The Wedding List” is traceable, as the song preserves the gist of Truffaut’s themes without performing as a purist adaptation. As in The Bride Wore Black, the setup of “The Wedding List” is the vengeful killing spree of a woman whose husband was shot dead on her wedding day. It’s a pretty straightforward lift — while there’s no mention of the film or its characters, the premise is exactly the same. Bush trades in striking images, so copping such a vivid plot from a film was standard practice for her. Yet “The Wedding List” signals a break from the norm for Bush — unlike “Wuthering Heights,” it’s clearly written by someone who’s familiar with the source material. The image of a bride widowed as her husband is struck down in the church is a striking one on aesthetic and ideological levels. Getting to write such lyrics as “you’ve made a wake of our honeymoon” is only one major reason to write about it.
Of the aforementioned New Wave movies, two are directed by men. More Nouvelle Vague is male-directed than not. For all that these movies display an awareness of women’s issues, they’re largely from a masculine point of view that deprives their female characters of interiority. Women remain objects of desire who can’t function when unaccompanied by men. The Bride Wore Black is a good example of this: while Jeanne Moreau’s character is taking revenge on the male world, her motivations are pretty much exclusively “welp, I don’t have a man anymore so I’d better become a murderous vigilante.” While this reversal of traditional revenge plots is clever (Quentin Tarantino clearly thought so, since he stole the film’s plot for Kill Bill), and its gender politics are at least complex, it’s still fundamentally a narrative of how women fail to function without men in their lives.
Kate Bush is no stranger to this idea. A good number of her classic songs are about pining for an enigmatic male figure. It’s as much a part of being a female songwriter in the Seventies as pianos, getting stalked by gross music journalists, and getting compared to other women artists with no similarities beyond their gender. Kate Bush’s men are bastions of strength, and to be fair, she has a reason to believe that. The majority of her steadiest collaborators and supporters — her partner Del Palmer, her brothers, and nearly every musician she worked with — have been men. It’s easy to adopt a positive view of masculinity with that background. As Graeme Thomson likes to remind us, masculinity to Bush is a desirable companion to femininity. For all that Bush has often proven to be a feminist in denial, her music showcases a conservative fantasy.
Never for Ever is pervaded by images of familial breakdown. From “Babooshka” and its adulterous façade to the wartime despair of “Army Dreamers” and “Breathing,” traditional concepts of familial domesticity collapse in the face of violent modernity. Each song on the LP conveys some shattering of youthful preconceptions under the weight of adult burdens. Midwifed by the prodigy’s anxiety of Lionheart, the youthful dream of The Kick Inside has morphed into a darker vision of a strange world that, while allowing the hopes of the young to break into it, warps them beyond recognition: “maybe fate wants you dead too.” This kind of pessimism is found throughout Never for Ever and The Dreaming, and is only somewhat alleviated by Hounds of Love. It’s expressed in “The Wedding List” through the death of Bush’s husband. There is no male hero to save the day: Bush is well and truly alone, left to fend for herself.
In this way, Bush kills her positive vision of masculinity and replaces it with a bloodier one. She essentially takes the role of the vigilante usually played by men. When men stop playing a part in this story, women take their roles. It’s a kind of reverse fridging, the moment fridging stops being a misogynistic trope and becomes kind of good and queer. This is a traditionally male role being occupied by one of the most popular young singers in England. This break with gender norms is exemplified by Bush’s Christmas special performance of the song, where she dons a wedding dress while shooting her husband’s assassin to death. It’s terribly fun and extra, but it gets to a key truth about wedding stories: they usually don’t have a lot of women protagonists with guns. To be fair, this is a problem a lot of stories have even now, but in Truffaut and Bush it’s a nice departure from the cultural norms of the Sixties and Seventies.
Yet for all the fun subversion Kate Bush as a shooter in a wedding dress entails, it still brings us back to the fundamental problem of The Bride Wore Black. This is still a story of a woman failing to function as a member of society because there’s no longer a man in her life. It’s a compellingly told one that understands the trauma of these women, but neither The Bride Wore Black nor “The Wedding List” seeks to be empowering. Telling disempowering stories isn’t a problem in its own right. I live for pessimistic works of art. But Bush is still copying a narrative from the director of Jules et Jim, even if Truffaut is more willing to explore a woman’s side of the story than some of his contemporaries.
The decisive way in which Bush differs from Truffaut, who ends his movie with Jeanne Moreau in prison but having killed all of her husband’s murderers, is that “The Wedding List” ends with… well… “after she shot the guy/she committed suicide.” “I’m coming, Rudy,” she howls desperately. It gets worse from there: her autopsy uncovers that she “had a little one inside/it must have been Rudy’s child.” This is a song where a pregnant woman commits suicide. And it’s not even the first time that’s happened in a Kate Bush song! If this was bleak for 1980, it is perhaps more so in our historical moment when shootings are a pestilence (and not just in America — the UK has seen the assassination of Jo Cox in the last three years). Violence wins in Never for Ever — the potentially happy wife and mother is never granted domestic happiness.
In addition to the clash of women’s lib and the desire for domestic peace, there are plenty of additional dissonances on the track. “The Wedding List” hails from the first, pre-Fairlight period of Never for Ever’s recording sessions, and is the most straightforward rock song of the bunch. The melody is, unusually for Bush, largely guitar-led, carried on its four-note guitar hook. It lent itself well to being sung live, as Bush sang it for Prince’s Trust Gala concert in 1982. The performance was hilariously almost derailed by Bush’s dress nearly falling off as its straps popped off. Bush carried on, holding her dress on with one arm throughout the song (while continuing to sing), finishing it, and rushing offstage. Onstage with her was Pete Townshend, who proceeded to march up to the front of the stage and offer a schoolboyish “whoops.”
And for all its fraughtness, “The Wedding List” is a compelling and fun tragedy. Any Bush fans who claim they don’t occasionally strut while playing the music video and imitating Bush’s performance in it has either never seen the video or is a pathological liar. Bush’s stories of familial destruction are useful for many reasons, but one vital component is this: societal collapse must be danceable.