03 December 2009

The Decade List: Les chansons d'amour (2007)

Les chansons d’amour [Love Songs] – dir. Christophe Honoré

Approaching the films of Christophe Honoré is a lot like walking along a tightrope. The odds always seem to be against you making it to the finish line without a gust of wind (or, in Honoré’s case, of bullshit) blowing you off. Even the worst of his films have glimmers of effulgence, but in most cases, they’re buried so deep in self-indulgence and shallow affronts that those moments are quickly forgotten. In every one of his films, Honoré “borrows” from considerably better pieces of French cinema, namely Godard and Truffaut, but in Love Songs, he takes on Jacques Demy, and the results are the most fruitful and satisfying of his career, even if you do still have to scrape a little shit off the bottom of your shoe afterward.

Love Songs exists in a magical, musical world of pliable sexuality during the winter months in Paris. The cold does provide more fashionable attire for the cast of beautiful people, does it not? It’s also the sort of world in which love and despair are grossly exalted, a world in which people can actually die of a broken heart. The ever-charming Ismaël (Honoré’s favorite actor, Louis Garrel) and the ever-lovely Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) have what would seem to be a harmonious love affair together… and with Ismaël’s pretty coworker Alice (Clotilde Hesme), but something’s awry. Ismaël feels like the third wheel, even though he’s a hit with Julie’s family, and Julie appears unsatisfied with both of her partners, though she only shows it when pressed by her mother (Brigitte Roüan) or sister Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni). Quickly, we begin to realize that this particular ménage à trois isn’t a progressive way of looking at romance, but a last resort to keep a once bright flame from extinguishing.

Honoré hasn’t fully allowed himself to step away from his lame visual quirks, from a title sequence where the entire cast and crew are identified by last name only to a stupid moment where the camera pans across the titles of the books the three love birds are reading in bed. His grasp of sequencing, cause-and-effect and timing is off, especially in the convenient, lazy ways he threads characters into the film. But dammit if Love Songs isn’t kinda wonderful in spite all that. The songs, composed by Alex Beaupain who makes a cameo in the film as a musician whose show the lovers attend, are almost uniformly superb, even if Roüan and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet’s singing voices are truly unremarkable (I still can't decide how I feel about Hesme's). It’s as if Honoré wanted to alert his audience to which of the characters hold the most weight in the film based on the quality of the actors’ serenades (it says a lot about the youngest of Julie's sisters, who only exists as an inconvenient plot contrivance).

Sagnier had already proven her vocal abilities in François Ozon’s 8 Women, and though according to the presse dossier Garrel hadn’t sang much before the film, his voice is pleasant. But it’s really all about Chiara Mastroianni, who plays Julie’s slightly uptight, certainly sheltered older sister. It would be giving Honoré too much credit to suggest that her presence is what links Love Songs to the film it aspires to, Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which, of course, starred her mother). Not only does Mastroianni have the richest singing voice of the cast (she recorded the album Home in 2004 with then-husband Benjamin Biolay), but she delivers the moment that brings the film to its knees with the song “Au parc.” Her Jeanne is the sole character whose sorrow stretches deeper than just sulking and pouting, and it’s profoundly felt in the scene at the Parc de la Pépinière.

Andrew O’Hehir accurately points out that Honoré takes more from Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Jeanne and the Perfect Guy [Jeanne et le garçon formidable] than it does Les parapluies de Cherbourg, even if he does find an excuse for placing Mastroianni beneath an umbrella as she walks Julie to the métro station. Compared to Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, a marvelous tragi-comédie musicale about a young woman (Virginie Ledoyen) who meets her dream man only to discover he has AIDS, Love Songs comes up short, but still it cast its own bittersweet spell on me. Even when it comes to Christophe Honoré, I can admit defeat.

With: Louis Garrel, Chiara Mastroianni, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Brigitte Roüan, Jean-Marie Winling, Alice Butaud, Yannick Renier, Alex Beaupain
Screenplay: Christophe Honoré
Cinematography: Rémy Chevrin
Music: Alex Beaupain
Country of Origin: France
US Distributor: IFC Films/Red Envelope Entertainment

Premiere: 18 May 2007 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 21 March 2008

Awards: Best Music (César Awards, France)

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