French Kisses: Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs
Critics who were irritated by the manic-depressive ethos of Christophe Honoré’s last film, Dans Paris, are not likely to be won over to his latest, a modern-day musical in the mold of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Godard’s Une femme est une femme. For those who appreciate the writer-director’s exhilarating allusions to New Wave classics, however, or who are open to the charms of a much-maligned genre, this gushing, sing-songy valentine to ’60s French cinema and amour will be a pure delight.
Constructed as a three-act drama built around the romantic pop confections of composer Alex Beaupain, LOVE SONGSThe Dreamers’ Louis Garrel) and his girlfriend, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). As in the aforementioned Godard film, she wants a baby, but he’s not entirely in touch with her emotional desires, preferring to play the clown (Garrel’s specialty) and entertain her adoring family with sophisticated parlor games rather than examine the deeper reasons for her dissatisfaction. Their intimacy is further compromised by Ismael’s free-spirited co-worker, Alice (Clotilde Hesme), with whom they’ve recently begun a ménage a trios. Honoré introduces tragedy into this seriocomic set-up when Julie collapses and dies outside a nightclub. Hence the segment’s title, “The Departure.”
As in opens with a tetchy phone conversation between magazine editor Ismael (Dans Paris, Honoré exhibits a keen feel for family dynamics as he explores the after-effects of Julie’s loss on a group of intermingling characters who often burst into song while strolling the surprisingly diverse back streets of Paris. While the illusion of real life is necessarily punctured by these spontaneous outcroppings of musicality, sometimes heightened by camera effects (Sagnier’s pre- and post-death numbers in particular are outfitted with an otherwordly aura cribbed from Cocteau), Honoré never plays them for tongue-in-cheek humor. There is a melancholy tenderness to Garrel’s renditions, which weave smoothly in and out of the film’s more mundane action. Chiara Mastroianni, as Julie’s sister Jeanne, brings a world-weary gravity to her songs as well that lifts the film out of what could have been mopey, one-note narcissism.
Apart from his artful and sensitive direction of these actors and their tuneful interludes of heartfelt self-expression, Honoré, a native of Brittany, brings a refreshing provincial sensibility to photographing the City of Lights, studiously avoiding tour-guide clichés and instead focusing his eye on the ethnic shopkeepers, bustling residents, and workaday aspects of life in the 10th arrondisement. Shot in 28 days on a very modest budget, Love Songs gets a lot of mileage out of its unglamorized, street-level filmmaking; you get a palpable sense of life as it’s actually lived in the Euro metropolis. But the real ace up his sleeve is the sly, unexpected turn of events in Ismael’s personal life, triggered by persevering teen admirer Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, who warbles two of the film’s best songs, including a cell-phone duet with Garrel.
Less subtle are Honoré’s countless tips of the hat to the previous generation of French filmmakers he openly admires and emulates. But with the sheer brio he brings to these imitative tics (pretentiously announcing actors by surname only in the opening credits, à la Godard; attiring Sagnier in a yellow raincoat like Catherine Deneuve’s in Cherbourg) he expresses a devotion to cinema history and a love of making movies that is rare today, if not obsolete. If Honoré is at times too inspired by the insouciant spirit of Demy or Truffaut, and overly indebted to their methods, then so be it. His truest innovations may indeed lie in the future, but as long as he’s making films this breezily gorgeous and emotionally true to early 21st century urban life and inner longing, I’ll happily sing along.