Woodkid’s self-directed music video “I Love You” begins with a rather enigmatic and violent image of an unconscious boy, a Viking helmet and shoe apparently knocked from his person and lying nearby. The video that follows seems to have little to do with this image, but, in the context of Woodkid’s larger project, the image and the tale both circle the same enigmatic loss.
Woodkid is the pseudonym of music video director Yoann Lemoine, famous for the videos he’s made for such music stars as Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift. He moved into music as an extension of what he was creating with his music videos, but there is a strong narrative impulse in the work. His debut album The Golden Age was released in a special edition that, instead of a jewel case, is contained within a book he co-wrote with Katarzyna Jerzak (his cousin). The book looks one part religious text and one part fairy tale with illustrations (by artist Jillian Tamaki).
The videos for the album, too, seem part of a larger literary project, each forming a chapter of a more complex narrative. “I Love You,” the third single to be released from the album The Golden Age, continues the story he built in the other two videos “Iron” and “Run Boy Run”: characters and symbols recur; the black and white simple aesthetic dominates all three. Narratively, the films overlap: “Iron” ends with a white churchly structure.
“Run Boy Run” begins with the boy that starts “I Love You” fleeing from that same structure, collecting an army of Where The Wild Things Are type beasts and standing ready to attack a metropolis of structures that look like the church he fled.
“I Love You,” then, begins with perhaps the result of this attack: the boy lying on the ground, his Viking helmet and one shoe knocked from him, apparently defeated by the white towering edifices he and his beasts sought to conquer.
“I Love You,” then is in some sense about defeat. The central narrative follows a priest-like figure who first appears in the video for “Iron” reading fervently from a religious text. In “I Love You” he arrives at a church to play the organ, announcing to the austere congregation, “Today I’ll tell you a story about a man who drowned in the ocean, after he lost someone he loved. This is a story about a man who died twice” (translated from the Russian).
Once this man begins to play the organ, the visual story follows the same man climbing and struggling across bleak, vast, rocky landscapes.
The juxtaposition of his smallness, his fragility against this landscape speaks to the intensity of the struggle he faces as he stumbles, presses his face weeping to stones, and eventually walks out into the ocean and sinks.
In an interview with Complex Magazine, Woodkid points to a thematically similar moment in the written text:
There’s this moment in the book where the kid says to his mum, “It’s very windy outside, there’s this massive storm,” and these are actually fragments of lyrics you find in The Golden Age. He says, “Look at the trees, they’re bending and almost touching the ground.” Because the wind is so strong, he says to his mother, “Look, they’re going to break.” And the mother says, “No they’re not going to break because they’re super tender.” But if they get old, dry, and more hard, then in the case of heavy wind, they’re going to break.
This man will succumb, will turn to stone (this, too, foreshadowed in the earlier video for “Iron” where he appears wearing a suit that looks like it is made from marble).
Two things complicate this defeat for me: the congregation and the whales. Woodkid’s narrative briefly flashes from the journey of the man who will turn to stone to show a few faces of those who are affected by this music and tale: an old man lowers his head to look at the religious symbols he holds, a woman lowers her head in despair, another woman kisses the crown of a baby’s head like this consoles her, and a boy looks heavenward, weeping. They each witness his tale and present us with ways to experience it: we can lean away from it, find consolation in faith or objects or in children, or we can give in to despair.
Here I am most intrigued by the woman with the lowered head. When the central character enters the church at the beginning, you can first see her to the right; she stands waiting in the front row, overjoyed to see the protagonist. And she appears later, head lowered, trembling, weeping at the song, the tale he’s sharing. She doesn’t look at him, can’t as he has his back to the congregation. And she seems, for lack of a better word, ashamed. Head bowed, trembling. From her initial joy and excitement to this despair, her story is secret from us.
But her reaction and, truly, none of the congregation’s are what the tale prescribes. They deny the whales.
The tale, simply put, is the journey of a man who turns to stone. This could have happened anywhere on the landscape of stone he traversed, but instead this transformation happens as he sinks down into the abyss circled and surrounded by a maelstrom of humpback whales. It’s a complicated image: the massive leviathans with their vaguely stony exteriors, but their graceful swimming together through the beams of light that pierce through the dark deep. Certainly water is what he washes his face and hands with before he begins to play music in the church and it is echoed here in some sense as cleansing. It is also, however, heavy and crushing as he sinks around the graceful hulking forms that rise where he falls.
Defeat, yes. But there’s also, inescapably, beauty in this struggle, this loss, and this transformation. The congregation, with their various reactions and griefs, seem to miss this experience of the tale. But we don’t. We can’t. There’s too much grace.
— R. W. Gray