The novelty of a model-turned-singer-turned-First Lady of France has long vanished. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy could almost be overlooked. There is little to criticize, given her poise and intelligence on the political stage, and not much else can be said of her earlier days. But whatever you make of Bruni’s accomplishments, it is her attitude toward life that makes her an exceptional, if not heroic, character.
That she now inhabits this unlikely position is remarkable enough, as is her success in such diverse spheres. The fact that she enjoys the show is perhaps more interesting. There is none of that bittersweet quality associated with Grace Kelly or the demented ambition of that other blonde, Hillary Clinton. Rather, she seems seduced by life with manly simplicity. In H. L. Mencken’s words, a “woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius.”
Bruni is at once romantic and objective. She is quite unlike her predecessor, the ex-Sarkozy, Cécilia Attias. Superficially the two ladies bear an extraordinary resemblance and yet represent entirely different types. It is the stuff of fiction that they actually meet in the same plot. Cécilia only enhances the character that is Carla Bruni.
Tall, feline, and unsettling, both women look like trouble. The likeness extends to their backgrounds. Both women had a cosmopolitan Parisian upbringing: Carla is from a family of northern Italian industrialists, Cécilia of Spanish and Jewish heritage. Music was central to both families. Carla is the daughter of classical musicians. Cécilia’s great-grandfather, Isaac Albéniz, was an influential composer. Too hungry for school, both women found themselves modeling at an early age. Then there’s romance. The two are equally famous for courting controversy.
Their lives crossed when Cécilia stomped out of the Élysée and Carla landed the role of l’épouse du président.
Cécilia walked out of every major endeavor, while Carla built on her opportunities. Cécilia abandoned a promising modeling career in favor of marriage, while Carla became a supermodel. In her youth Cécilia shone as a pianist, only to quit after her first concert. In contrast, Carla marketed her latent interest in music when she fell out of fashion. Before the world grew tired of her singing and strumming, Carla became the skilled diplomat we see today, something Cécilia, having spent years in the trenches by Sarkozy’s side, gave up at the first sign of victory.
In this gross simplification, Cécilia stands for those permanently dissatisfied women that we all know who find no romance in their achievements. They take a harsh-realist approach to life that dulls the imagination and ultimately condemns a project. Bruni rejects any notion that le destin se moque bien de nous (fate mocks us) in her song Quelqu’un M’a Dit. Happiness, she suggests, is ours to pursue and enjoy.
Happiness, individualism, creativity, and pride, packaged in a slender beauty—Ayn Rand would certainly have taken notice. Carla Bruni does have that Randian quality of self-assertion in the face of establishment, but instead of being “armed with a vision” she is delighted by a vision. There is to her story a natural degree of uncertainty, entirely lacking in Rand’s novels, whose heroes come into being with a perfect and definite plan. Bruni is open to possibility.
Arguing at length about the merit of her songs, looks, or gestures would miss the point. It is the idea of a passionate woman who can truly grab an opportunity and then move on to other endeavors with conscious deliberation and joyful maturity that gives Carla Bruni the power to inspire.
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