(in the section "Thrills" - edited by Alan Jackson)

Rive Gauche

Rita Mitsouko's split personality is intriguing the continent. Channel-hopping Jonathan Romney takes a lesson from her inner egos Catherine and Fred - the only subversive role models in French pop.

By night, Rita Mitsouko wears a top-knot and a pencil moustache. She walks like Prince, talks like Jeanne Moreau, and reigns supreme as French pop's vamp of the lurid and bizarre. That's Rita as in Hyworth and Mitsouko after the Guerlain perfume.

By day, Rita reverts to her two halves, Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin. Since summer '84, when the slinky Latin electronics of their 'Marcia Baila' single burst like a wilful splash of dayglo into the grey French pop scene, the two have basked in a relentless media glare.

Catherine, whose public persona is a grotesque, Tibetan parody of Louise Brooks is the hard-edged professional talker of the two; Fred grins absently, offers the occasional reticent remark, and generally resembles Michael Crawford playing lead in The Little Richard Story. Halfway through the interview he reaches down into a carrier bag and produces a glass of scotch, which they proceed to work their way through.

Briskly fending off questions, Catherine makes it clear that self-promotion isn't her favourite occupation, and turns decidedly chilly when I ask about the hazards of living and working together. "We never answer personal questions. Once The Face came and took some photos of our flat."

Fred shakes his head: "It was a mistake..."

The Paris flat has acquired a mythical status as Rita's birthplace. The pair stayed in for a year, learning to play their instruments, venturing out for their explosive debut dressed in Felix Potin carrier bags - roughly equivalent to Safeways, as supermarkets go. Another performance quickly passed into legend.

"I was having my period that day, and I was singing a song about lying in bed feeling sexy, and I was feeling myself all over, mining the words. Then I realised I had my tampon in, so I pulled it out and started swinging it around, like they do with feathers at the Lido, and threw it into the audience. All the girls were delighted, because the boys were disgusted."

The gesture was immediately interpreted as a feminist statement, but Catherine is loath to comment on this. In fact, the duo are generally averse to theorising about the implications of their role, surprisingly since they represent something of a breakthrough as the only subversive role models in French pop. The anarchic potential of their visual style, aired in some lavishly off-the-wall videos, attracted Jean-Luc Godard to film them at work in the studio.

After last year's disastrous re-recording of 'Marcia Baila' in graceless English translation, Virgin have just released the manic 45 'C'est comme Ca' over here, from the group's Tony Visconti-produced second album. Both Rita albums are a delirious brew of camp wit and inventive electronics - sordid, sentimental, seductive and higly adept at ripping the piss out of a million clashing styles. They've been compared to Eurythmics ad nauseam, but I'm reminded more of Sparks - with wan, goofy Fred in the Ron Mael role - or of Eno's early dabblings.

The worldview presented in Catherine's lyrics mixes lust, disgust, absurdity, and downright cynicism. She writes in English as well as French, although her relationship to the latter language is, well, tangential. A packet of 'full fat soft cheese' and a bottle of Bull's Blood provide the description of one song's chubby object of desire: A full fat bloody bull. The English would never have thought of putting that together."

Their idols?

"Green Lampton."

Er...Green Lantern?

"C'est ca, Green Lampton. A friend said, when they ask you about your idols, always mention someone who doesn't exist. So Green Lampton and Roberto Maté, he's a guy who designs stage sets, and is also a big singing star in the People's Republic of China."

She shrugs. C'est comme ca.