Saturday, April 9, 2011

Love Songs (2007, Chansons d'amour, Les)

Why is sadness and humor so closely related?  Christophe Honoré’s musical Love Songs is a bittersweet film that remains one of the great pleasures from this productive auteur.  He takes a revisionist approach to the movie musical, telling a contemporary story with contemporary music by the French songwriter Alex Beaupain, and the result is a joyous and very sad story of love, loss, and life redeemed with new love.

Three people, Ismaël, Julie, and Alice, share a life together in Paris.  Alice is into non-sex, and Julie is desperate to keep Ismaël but unhappy with their current life.  She confides to her sister Jeanne that Ismaël is forcing her to break up for him.  Julie dies almost literally of a broken heart and Ismaël becomes an emotional wreck.  He dodges Julie’s loving family, tries to build on his friendship with Alice, but to spare himself pain he distances himself from emotion.  Until Erwann.  Erwann is a young kid determined to have Ismaël love him.

Louis Garrel is my favorite actor.  He embodies cinematic spirit better than any performer today, and he reminds me a lot of Jean-Pierre Léaud.  Léaud was a very divisive actor from the New Wave and is Garrel’s godfather, so the parallel is fair to draw.  But Garrel is more accessible than Léaud maybe because he’s more handsome and his personality more playful and innocent.  Even when he’s in bed with two women he retains his innocence.  The secret might be that he’s a terrific actor.  He has become a muse for Honoré, but the director’s true muse is Chiara Mastroianni.  Love Songs was her first film for Honoré and she has since appeared in every one of his films, including a single shot in La belle personne.  She is very good as Julie’s sister, and like her mother she can handle a musical.  The dynamic between these three characters is the saddest thing about Love Songs.  It is clear that Julie loves Ismaël because she gets so easily upset at him for disappointing her.  For possibly many reasons, Ismaël is constantly keeping her away.  We see him more than once avoiding true physical emotion with her, which only aids Julie’s worsening emotional health.  When she dies, Ismaël is destroyed.  Her family is destroyed, and Jeanne tries to get Ismaël to remain close to them.  I think it quite clear that she is in love with him.  And he constantly disappoints her, too.  She finds a woman in his bed that isn’t Alice and Jeanne is hurt.  She finds someone else in his bed and things become clearer for her, but not easier.

The obstacle the film might have with mainstream audiences is that it believes in pansexuality, the idea that sexual pleasure is not be limited by gender.  I think that is a very unrealistic argument.  Most people know which sexual partners appeal to them.  But because Love Songs is a musical, I was swept away.  That Erwann could get through to Ismaël is a satisfying finale but wholly unrealistic.

So a good question to ask: in a musical, is the story more important or the music?  Can we forgive a fantasy if the music is so infectious?  To each his own, but I certainly could.  Love Songs has an implausible story.  I don’t believe that Ismaël, who we’ve seen sexually linked with three different women, would fall for Erwann, a boy, no matter how adorable he is.  Yet, this is a fantasy and I wanted to believe that Erwann’s potent amours would break Ismaël down and rebuild him.  I’m probably using the wrong words to describe the situation.  The film really isn’t sentimental or sappy.

Honoré’s greatest strength is the energy he brings to his films, an energy and rhythm always supported by the grittiness of real life.  He is a cinefile two generations removed from the New Wave, and this connection is important to follow a lineage through the great history of French cinema.  Honoré is the finest director of his generation, the thematic and stylistic heir of Godard and Truffaut.  He doesn’t believe in simple emotions, at least as a filmmaker.  That’s why parts of this film are heartbreaking.  I haven’t seen my share of musicals, but what I understand is that they are happy, with happy endings.  The ending of Love Songs is hopeful but the tragedy of loss always hangs over.  Take the song “Au parc,” sung by Jeanne.  She describes the renewing seasons and the ever-present playful children at the park she and her sister grew up in, but she always remembers, “It will all be there, except for you.”  Or the unusual love song Ismaël sings to Erwann when they first make love.  He asks Erwann to find Julie inside of him and kill her a second time so that Ismaël can move on.  Their love is built on need more than sexual attraction.  Erwann, a virgin, desires Ismaël and Ismaël needs a body to cling to.

The real revelation in the cast was of course Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as Erwann.  He’s since become a regular in French films.  I like him a lot in this film.  He has a terrific voice.  If I had to name the scene-stealing performance though, I would signal out Clotilde Hesme.  She plays Alice, the third party in the ménage-a-trois.  I felt her role was not as substantial as Garrel’s or Ludivine Sagnier’s as Julie but Hesme has a quality about her that is charming and a regal look that I found stunning.

Alex Beaupain has written the music for every one of Honoré’s films.  In what forms a trilogy, Dans Paris, Love Songs, and La belle personne are, in Beaupain’s words, ‘movies with songs’.  Love Songs is their only full length musical.  Beaupain is a great songwriter.  His lyrics are intelligent, ironic, and absolutely charming.  I listen to his two studio albums at the gym and I don’t even understand French.  They just sound great.  I won’t do a song by song breakdown, but “De bonnes raisons”, the opening number, is in many ways a call back to the 60s.  Towards the end of this upbeat swanky song there’s a guitar riff, nearly buried under the lyrics, that is so 1960s it just makes you smile.  “La Bastille” is one of the saddest songs in the film.  Julie sings about how the rain outside empties the square of the angel statue of the Bastille.  Each member of her family takes a section of the song, and we see that while they love and are happy, such happiness is joined with the sorrows of life.

But the storytelling remains simple.  If I have one negative criticism it would be that the film is rushed.  It’s almost 100 minutes but especially with my most recent viewing I felt the story was hurried through.  Often times the pace is too quick; we aren’t given the time in between story beats to contemplate or even orient ourselves.  Other times, especially in the latter half of the film, this rushed approach hinders the storytelling.  Some things feel washed over just to get to the next musical number.  For example, when Erwann gives Ismaël his keys, inviting him to stay, Ismaël not only has a change of heart by agreeing to go home with him, he seems excited by the idea.  This is contrary to what he has just said.  Such changes of mind are understandable, but the film doesn’t make his sudden change of mind clear.

The plot isn’t the thing.  All I can say to recommend Love Songs is that it makes me happy.  I can talk forever about these moments, like when Ismaël jokingly tries to cut off Alice’s tongue with a pair of scissors or when Alice kids him about not being circumcised when he’s Jewish; or when Alice, Julie and Ismaël dance on the streets of Paris; or the playful and dynamic song “Le distance” where Erwann tires to seduce Ismaël; and every scene with Julie’s family.  Come to think of it, Love Songs is one of my favorite films, imperfect as it is, sad as parts of it is, but its energy and mood make it a lot of fun to watch.

Love Songs (2007)
(a.k.a. Chansons d'amour, Les)
Director: Christophe Honoré
Writer: Christophe Honoré
Stars: Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Chiara Mastroianni
Music: Alex Beaupain
In French
Runtime: 95 minutes

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