26 March 2008

Love Songs

Written & Directed by: Christophe Honoré
Original Music by: Alex Beaupain
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: B-

Love Songs’ opening credits display the names (last names only) of the cast and crew in big block letters, a nod to Godard & the French New Wave, director Honoré’s most obvious filmmaking antecedents. But behind the text run images of a gray, drab and overcast Paris—despite the cafes, it’s not quite the romantic Paris of postcards. As such, Honoré gets straight to his central theme, the one that also popped up in his previous film, Dans Paris—the conflict between romance and reality; between idealized history and bleak modernity; between Godard and the Bros. Dardenne; between love affairs and death.

But whereas Dans Paris maintained 90 minutes of joie de cinema, balancing Roman Duris’ melancholia against Louis Garrel’s playful buoyancy, Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) falters by falling into self-seriousness. That is, Love Songs aims to reach dramatic heights within the pretense of the movie musical, whose emotions can never, inherently, reach more than a level of superficiality.

Garrel returns in Honoré’s latest to play a young graphic designer (I think), involved in a ménage a trois with Clotilde Hesme and Ludivine Sagnier. (Following The Dreamers and Dans Paris, it’s become to difficult to imagine Louis Garrel in a bed without two additional bunkmates.) Time Warner Cable describes the film pithily and perfectly: “a young French threesome express themselves with sex and pop music.” For the first several reels, Love Songs is as fun to watch as Time Warner makes it sound, thanks in large part to Garrel and his irrepressible likability as he treats a couch cushion like an infant or slides across rainslick macadam in his rubber soles, to the squealing delight of his lady friends.

After Dans Paris, some critics criticized Honoré as rather cloying in his aping of New Wave, et al. styles, but I find his mismash pastiche style of filmmaking to be palpably and infectiously impassioned: a character “walks away” by gliding as though standing on a conveyor belt (a favorite trick of Frankenheimer); Honoré suddenly cuts to still photos like he’s Chris Marker; the three characters lay in bed together, reading books with titles like “Perfect Happiness”, “Voluptuous Pleasures” and, of course, “Politics”. (It is, after all, a French film.)

The very first scene of dialogue in Love Songs is an argument over whether it’s morally acceptable to see a bad movie on purpose; Honoré takes his cinema seriously, so seriously he’s not afraid to treat the medium with an excited measure of playfulness. (Someone is holding a book? Cut to a page of the book!) Late in the film, a song sung by Yannick Renier sums it up nicely: “Have you ever loved,” he sings, “for the sheer sake of it? Have you ever taken a bite of the apple for the taste of the fruit—its sweetness and its zest?” If cinema is a glass of water, Honoré and Garrel are two tablets of Alka Seltzer.

Unfortunately their carbonating effects wear off after about 45 minutes and the glass of water that is Love Songs goes tepid again. A sudden death interrupts the love story and kills off most of the lightheartedness as well. Music, in Love Songs as in most any musical, is used as a means for the characters to sing through their feelings, to externalize the internalized. At first, it’s a means to brighten up dismal dialogue about jealousy or rain, saving the audience from prattling French characters. When Garrel is criticizing Sagnier with lines like, “little bitch, go to hell,” it’s much more fun to hear it sung.

But Love Songs takes on an unbefitting solemnity as Garrel and those around him try to cope with the sudden death. The film loses its pep; the songs follow suit, shedding their toe-tappingness. But its sourness rings hollow; Love Songs, from start to finish, is never emotionally credible. At its best, early on, it’s simply uninhibitedly joyous and when it loses that, it loses everything. If it’s between romance and reality, Honoré ought to err on the side of romance.

Watch a musical clip or
Watch the (misleading) trailer:

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