In the late 1950s, two parallel movements surfaced on either side of the Atlantic: the beatniks in America and les beats in Paris. The US version was broad based: it was about alienation, music and freedom and grew to encompass pot, free love and destroying draft cards. In 1969, Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, a hymn of praise to youth and nonconformity, became its house movie.
The French movement was more specific. It wasn’t confined to Paris by any means, but its focus was St Germain des Pres and the Boulevard St Michel on the Left Bank. It revolved around existentialist thought, verbalised in a mass of smoky dives, where discussion about the meaning of life could go on until dawn. The real thought, if any, was found in the Cafe des Deux Magots, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who turned themselves into an intellectual sideshow for the acolytes who came from around the globe to sit at their feet.
The movement’s sexy representative on earth was the semi-official chanteuse of the time, the strangely powerful Juliette Greco – a marvellously unhealthy antidote to the vacuity of pop stars such as Francoise Hardy and Johnny Halliday. See, too, Stanley Donen’s 1957 film Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn as the intense, plain girl in a book store who is made into a top model by Fred Astaire, playing photographer Richard Avedon. And in 2005, the beatniks came back into fashion. Sadly, it meant a return to black, just as we were getting used to colours. Aren’t revivals hell?
(First published August 2005)
Picture; Juliette Greco 1927