Borrowing from Bowie and Fosse, the singer subverts masculine tropes in a sexy, queer reimagining of a Dante classic
Christine and the Queens’s most recent EP, the illustrious and seductive La Vita Nuova, is an act of magic and self-discovery. The songs themselves most explicitly contain ruminations on the latter, as Chris—aka Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine—reflects on the end of a relationship via introspection, examining her own malaise. The accompanying short film of the same name—directed by Colin Solal Cardo and choreographed by Ryan Heffington—is where the surrealness both quietly and manically shines through, and where Chris is able to more playfully engage with her sprawling rotation of personas and cultural references.
I’ve been struck by Chris ever since I heard her track “iT” in 2014, and my appreciation and fascination has only endured as her wrestling with gender and genre evolves and complicates over the course of her career. A 2018 New York Times profile by Reggie Ugwu sums it up perfectly in the title, “Gender Is a Construct. Christine and the Queens Built a Bulldozer.” For Chris, there are no rules. She lives in her own world and moves to her own rhythms; not dictating to other queer people how they should be, but instead offering insight into what a life can look like if you’re tailoring fixed notions of identity to your liking in one instance, and sledgehammering some more to pieces in another. And the music is just so good: beats that are bass and synth-heavy with profound lyrics that read like an especially good personal essay. As a queer, masc-presenting woman who still uses she/her pronouns, it’s difficult for me not to envy Chris, and the perceived effortlessness of the magical way she moves through space. A deep dive into her work reminds me not to envy, but to be inspired: to remember how motivated and thoughtful her curations are, and the resources she draws on to create them.
Chris’s visual work is peppered with homages to pop culture, especially since the release of her self-titled album in 2018. Often, she wields iconography that we associate with camp—yet nonetheless noxious—impressions of masculinity. In the “Girlfriend” music video, she channels the street gangs of West Side Story against a faux-New York skyline, gliding in synchronicity across a rooftop with a group of (similarly queer-presenting) dancers as if they share a heartbeat. The choreography conjures ubiquitous images of violence, intimacy, and a particular understanding of old-school male preening, as Chris and her crew perform a move that looks like they’re running phantom combs through their hair to smooth out the gel. In “5 dollars” she is Patrick Bateman’s queer understudy, eliciting the infamous American Psycho morning routine, but in her iteration, Chris puts on a leather chest harness under her suit before she heads to work, briefcase in hand. It’s a thrilling evocation of Chris’s exacting and subversive identity as a performer. She adopts famous representations of toxic male behavior and—as they coalesce with her queerness—swiftly cuts through them, creating a complex portrait of an artist whose identity and genre cannot be labeled or contained.
“Dazed from the morning sun with a tie strung around her neck, her dancing writhing and desperate, Chris is a bohemian poet in mourning, a queer vestige of Dante.”
La Vita Nuova is no exception; in fact, it’s much broader scope than a typical music video—all five songs are included, lasting just under 14 minutes—lends itself even further to Chris’s wild, uninhibited vision, and the extent to which she toys with traditional cultural imagery to exaggerate her limitless identity. The most explicit tribute isn’t a relatively recent memory from 20th-century pop culture, but a medieval one: the title is borrowed from Dante’s 13th-century text of 31 poems that pine for Beatrice, the great love of his life, and the subsequent lament of her sudden death 16 years later. Its literal English translation, “The New Life,” obviously gestures to a dramatic transformation, which is apt for a Chris cover. Not only will I honor you, it implies, but I will also reinvent you.
Chris’s interpretation conveys similar themes of love and loss as Dante, but with twists of performative melodrama and queer fantasy. She begins on a Parisian rooftop, performing the EP’s devastating and resonant opener “People, I’ve been sad,” wearing traces of facepaint and a sequin suit that’s a loose-fitting counterpart to Bowie’s from the “Life on Mars” era. Dazed from the morning sun with a tie strung around her neck, her dancing writhing and desperate, Chris is a bohemian poet in mourning, a queer vestige of Dante. Soon, she is no longer in isolation: she is joined by what seems to be a devil, a horned figure who appears to her as quickly as he evaporates, like a figment of her memory. He tends to Chris with equal measures of suspicion and care, implying suffocation in one frame and caressing her head in another. The devil reemerges throughout the video as a sinister puncture, alluding to another of Dante’s works, Inferno, and a foreshadowing of the poet’s ultimate fate.
As her journey continues, Chris descends into hell. She moves downwards, from the rooftop to a mirrored studio, where she leads a group of dancers through a loose and ebullient routine as she sings “Je disparais dans tes bras” (“I disappear in your arms”). There are echoes of Bob Fosse, particularly in her slick all-black choreographer attire. I remember the first time I saw Cabaret, Fosse’s masterwork, and how seductive the dancers were to me: their apathetic facial expressions both in sync with, and speaking against, the lithe and idiosyncratic contortions of their bodies. In hindsight, it was their blithe androgyny that captivated me so much, a queer burlesque that I’d never seen before. I’m certain that Chris was similarly enthralled by the timelessness of Fosse’s choreography, the way it dissolves all boundaries. Chris’ brightly lit studio is then subsumed by strobes, the joy eradicated, and Chris is caught in a mess of bodies, torn between manifestations of desire and pain. The devil bites her neck amidst the chaos, but as the blood begins to spill she is alone in the studio, touching her unscathed neck in confusion.
In the performance of “Mountains (we met),” we understand that Chris’ descent is tracked through the decadent Palais Garnier in Paris, a 19th-century Italian-style opera house. The fluidity of translation has always been a profound element of Chris’s work, no more so than in La Vita Nuova, where she sings in her usual English and French as well as Spanish and Italian. The use of the Palais Garnier is a genius move, an architectural embodiment of her multifaceted identity. In “Mountains (we met)” Chris sings to an empty theater, wearing another Bowie-esque piece—a multicolored unitard—as she is followed by a person holding a boom mic, recording the reverberations. In the Pitchfork review, Anna Graca cleverly notes La Vita Nuova’s similarity to a story Chris told in a 2016 Guardian profile. When she was attending a school where only boys were allowed to direct plays, she staged one in defiance and was expelled two years later when the administration learned she planned to direct again. The anecdote is especially felt in Chris’s rendition of “Mountains (we met)”; even in singing to an open void, she consumes the space, the weight of her voice tracked by a boom operator.
Chris flies down vast, opulent staircases as she sings “Nada,” starting in the lavish foyer of the Palais Garnier and eventually in the bowels of the theater, where she finds the weakened body of the devil and drains him of blood, killing him and seemingly acquiring his powers. It’s a complex moment, far from clearly defined: Chris is dressed in white, a clear signal of virtue and purity, and looks broken as she ends the devil’s life, almost as if she is sparing a lover; but her face and hair are splashed with red. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Chris deeply loved him somehow, personally and truthfully, even though it challenges the virtuous, innocent love of Beatrice in Dante’s text. But the ambiguous relationship to this figure captures Chris’s ability to use looming masculinity as a conduit for her queerness, as a tool to wield confidence but also to tap into fragility and tenderness. She is both at once, untethered from any rigid definition.
“But this desire manifests on Chris’s subverted terms: Beatrice is not characterized as a lifelong love, but rather a product of carnal lust.”
In the film’s climax—a performance of the title track—Chris’s “hell” in the theater’s underground is a rhythmic queer wonderland, a tangle of purple hues and fairy lights that feels like a euphoric coalescence of clubs and churches and carnivals. As the devil’s body is taken away and the dancers’ hands shake rapturously, Chris transforms into a new persona, wearing a purple spandex suit. Her eyes are red, as the devil’s were, and she dances with a swagger that immediately calls to mind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” as well as the bravado that we see her embody in “Girlfriend” and “5 dollars.” Dante’s La Vita Nuova is also actively realized: Caroline Polachek (a fellow member of indie pop royalty, who is featured on the track) appears as Beatrice, the object of the poet’s desire. But this desire manifests on Chris’s subverted terms: Beatrice is not characterized as a lifelong love, but rather a product of carnal lust. Polachek sings almost exclusively in Italian, the language of Dante; they move towards each other, pushing the crowd aside, and dance together sensually until Polacheck exposes her neck and Chris bites it, memories of the devil in the dance studio flashing as she does.
Throughout La Vita Nuova, it is difficult to discern what is real and what is imagined. As soon as Beatrice collapses, so does the rest of the crowd, leaving Chris alone, manic and excited by the destruction; the bodies on the floor occasionally pulse and twist as Chris dances. She adopts the aesthetic of the ultimate “toxic man”—the devil—in the film’s final frames, horns on her head and vampiric teeth in her mouth as she stares hungrily into the eyes of the viewer. But so much of Chris’ brilliance is her multitudes. As Graca notes, “Chris is gentle and tough, masculine and feminine, subtle and direct.” Perhaps the melancholy poet never left the rooftop, and was dragged into a metaphorical hell by the devil as she reckoned with the loss of her one true love; perhaps she envisioned herself as the devil—the killer of Beatrice—to pull her closer, to try and find a sense of meaning. It’s redundant to seek out any concrete meaning, in the end, for it feels entirely fitting to be pulled into a world that is liminal and curious, queer and expansive, by an artist such as this: it is the weird, wild world of Christine and the Queens.