Nicolas Fromegeau—one half of M83—split after the group’s reputation-making 2003 album Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghost and a couple of singles in 2004, and left Anthony Gonzalez to go at it alone. Rather than freak-out or give up, Gonzalez dove further into the warm, emotional side of the French group’s electronica for 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us, and ran screaming from the mannered aspects of electronic music not made for dancing. Dead Cities won accolades, in part, because it was warm and emotional, but it was relatively emotional; a group of sincere songs in a genre known for squeaks and squeals that, for awhile there, proudly wore the label “IDM” (Intelligent Dance Music).
Before eschewed any “IDM” trappings and was instead filled with breathy vocals, Michael Mann-movie soundscapes, and gleefully adolescent emotions that were an equal mix of idealism and depression. Intro track has a teenage-sounding girl exclaiming “raise your arms the highest they can/So the whole universe will glow,” while other tracks are tellingly titled “Teen Angst” and “Lower Your Eyelids So You Can Die With the Sun,” a title purposefully poetic in a ripped-out-of-a-smart-but-still-fifteen-year-old-girl’s-journal kind of way. The choice was clearly conscious—and arguably as mannered a position as the sterile roboticism of most electronic music—but Gonzalez totally sold it and went beyond any sense of irony or trying too hard anti-irony.
One of the most palpable examples of this shift are the videos for Before’s “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” and “Teen Angst,” both directed by Matthew Frost. Frost, a London-born photographer, music video, and commercial director, who also got a story credit for Larry Clark’s sorta slept-on Wassup Rockers, compassionately follows the subjects of these videos (both vaguely unhappy teenage girls connected by a dreamboat guy with a car) with hand-held cameras and sun-baked cinematography as both reach their own rarified sense of epiphany.
In screenwriter terms, the “inciting incident” of this pair of videos is the first few moments of “Don’t Save Us,” quickly recapped at the beginning of “Angst” too: The dark-haired girl politely waves back to the boyfriend of the blonde girl, who spots the wave. The “incident,” however, doesn’t spark any kind of overt drama; rather, each girl’s mind wanders and their minor psychological turmoil’s given its own video.
“Don’t Save Us From the Flames,” Directed by Matthew Frost (2005)
Too often, especially in movies that grossly misread the classic 80s Hughes films—to which all these videos owe a debt—the “outsider” is either a kind of “diamond in the rough” who just needs to meet the right people or a decided outsider who is “better” than those around them. It’s not so simple here, where Frost and Gonzalez expertly illustrate the dark-haired girl’s ennui without totally justifying it. She’s clearly more interesting than the average kid, and there’s something affecting about her biking around in her soccer uniform, but she’s a bit much.
The actress is perfect because she’s pretty enough, but insular and awkward enough too, and that’s what sort of makes her life suck. She’s the kind of girl who after a few years in college or in “the real world” won’t be an outsider at all, but for the time being is weird because she’s quiet and draws pictures and daydreams. It’s more affecting because her life isn’t completely hopeless; she’s not Martha Dumptruck.
Notice how much of the video is the girl alone. Most of the video bounces between hand-held, in-too-close close-ups of her, or wide images of her riding her bike or sitting, with little interest, in her surroundings. This fits the nature of loneliness—obsessive focus on one’s self or expansive, palpable isolation—and the music of M83 as well, which often hovers in quiet whisper before exploding for the chorus.
“Teen Angst,” Directed by Matthew Frost (2005)
The beginning of “Teen Angst” is a connector to “Don’t Save Us” and, through it, establishes some weird psychological connection between the girls. It’s unclear whether the glorious ghost bike ride of “Don’t Save Us” is a dream or real or what (and it really doesn’t matter), but here the blonde girl’s somehow experienced what occurred in the final part of that video and awakes still upset about her boyfriend waving to another girl; this is high-school stuff with a straight-face.
The video’s essentially a journey toward empathy. While the in-the-library context of poetry and history bores the girl and does little to distract from her concern that her boyfriend didn’t answer his phone, the firsthand experience of life softens and broadens her. The rapid series of gravestones and death-dates culminates in a visit to Robert Frost’s grave to imply an understanding of the world’s suffering beyond her own boyfriend troubles. Leaving the cemetery, she spots two LARPers and, right before they’re about to strike one another, her face squishes-up, concerned for the pain they’re about to inflict on one another.
Particularly striking—and oddly affecting—is her viewing of Revolutionary War dioramas and brief shots of her in uniform, an image of her literally walking in someone else’s shoes. The video’s final sequence is purposefully understated and simple. The blonde girl sees a loving couple, is kindly waved to by the girl, and smiles in acceptance, not bitter or ready to project their romance onto her apparent lack thereof. While the song continues to soar, with a whirl of wordless vocals, heavy drumming, and thick washes of synthesizer, Frost’s camera holds on the girl’s face, sloppily zooming in and out.
Saturdays=Youth, this year’s proper follow-up to Before—last year saw the minor release of an ambient work called Digital Shades—brought the pop appeal and emotionality even further upfront. Before’s 80s futurist menace is pretty much gone and replaced with a reliance on the ambient pop of that same decade. The sound’s similar but a little more optimistic and that finds its way into the videos—“Graveyard Girl” and the more recent, “Kim & Jessie”—too.
“Graveyard Girl,” Directed by Matthew Frost (2008)
The documentary-like images of high school that begin “Graveyard Girl” suggest a shift away from the interiority of the videos of Before. More in-line with the 80s drama-comedies M83 clearly love—and following the rules of melodrama in general—“Graveyard Girl"s conceit is rooted in outside forces like the very-real, social strata that exists when you’re fifteen. It’s very John Hughes-ian—outsider girl has crush on insider Jock—but actually ends even more optimistically than those 80s classics; the girl gets the guy and it’s joyous, nothing bittersweet about their pet cemetery embrace (except the fact that it happens in a pet cemetery).
Although it ends happily and without ambiguity, there’s still a fascinating tension between the Hollywood ending, the idealized, out-of-time high school Graveyard Girl attends (she’s Molly Ringwald by way of NYLON Magazine, the Jock wears a old-school Varsity jacket, students are allowed to smoke on the premises, a student’s shown chatting on a cellphone), and the way Frost captures it, with one eye still on the ugly realities of life.
That the two incongruous lovers connect through a weird, implicit mourning for their pets, that the “cool” party which Graveyard Girl attends just results in her getting felt up by a creep, and the very funny—and very honest—detail that, early on, she obsessively swipes the Jock’s photo off the grave of his dead pet, maintain some of the darker aspects of Before’s videos. The happy ending, though, fits the music of Saturdays, an album Gonzalez dedicates in the liner-notes to “all the friends, music, movies, joints, and crazy teachers that made my teenage years so great!”
“Kim & Jessie,” Directed by Eva Husson (2008)
Calling Husson’s “Kim & Jessie” video “experimental” would be a jump, but it strays away from the conventional narrative of Frost’s videos while retaining that emotional teenage core. It begins the same as Frost’s trilogy of teenage longing with the same hazy imagery and naturalism, but things get increasingly surreal in a video that’s basically an adolescent, lesbian fever dream.
Like “Graveyard Girl,” it ends with the outsider—or in this case, outsiders—getting the guy(s), but their video-ending make-out session with dread-locked roller-bladers is an age and community acceptable transference for the characters’ love for one another. The parents-acceptable culmination of the homoeroticism and doubling hinted at in the first scene, where the girls change in front of one another, intercuts with tight close-ups of each of them, making their bodies indistinguishable.
For all that Film Studies stuff though, Husson makes the same statement in other parts of the video in more playful ways. The appearance of the Siren-like skaters turns into an absurd Big Lebowski homage, which makes way for a brilliant and inexplicable cut to the girls downhill skating, perfectly matched to the song’s airy bridge. It doesn’t make conventional sense, but it’s perfect.
A lesser director may have ended “Kim & Jessie” with a transcendent make-out between the two girls and, in some ways, that might better match the teenage idealism of Gonzalez’s latest album, but Husson’s choice to do that in subtler ways takes the girls’ love more seriously—it doesn’t reduce it to shock value or politicize it into the trangression of youth—and maintains M83’s underlying sense of sadness and longing.
Brandon Soderberg is author of the sites No Trivia, The Biographical Dictionary of Rap, and Are You a Serious Comic Book Reader?.