Review: 'Les Chansons d'Amour'
Bottom Line: A light film about a heavy subject that will not inspire a return of the musical genre.
CANNES -- Jacques Demy was really the last French filmmaker to make musicals where songs, action and romantic drama blended effortlessly. Nevertheless, this has not deterred French novelist-filmmaker Christophe Honore from bravely attempting to resuscitate the (mostly) discarded genre. The result is mixed.
"Les Chansons d'Amour," a Competition entry, is, fortunately, not a pastiche or a lampoon. Honore rightly chooses the most emotional moments for the characters to express thoughts and desires in song. And he is unafraid to cope with tragedy, loss and regret rather than take refuge in a cotton-candy bubble of romanticism.
And yet ... it doesn't work very well. Part of the problem is the thoroughly unlikable nature of the central figure, which may not be unintentional but nevertheless is a drag on the story. There is also randomness to what happens as characters are buffeted by the needs of pre-existing songs so as to arrive at emotional plateaus more at the convenience of the music than their lives.
An approving reception at the Palais press screening indicates "Les Chansons" will find a home in France and perhaps other European territories. It will be a much harder sell elsewhere as it lacks the savvy dazzle of, say, a Baz Luhrmann musical.
The focal point of "Les Chansons" is the waning love affair of Ismael (Louis Garrel) and Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). To spice up the relationship, Julie has allowed it to expand to a threesome by inviting Alice (Clotilde Hesme), Ismael's co-worker at a small newspaper, into sleepovers at their flat in Paris' 10th arrondissement. But Ismael remains restless and Julie unhappy.
While Ismael fits in well with Julie's family -- her older and younger sisters (Chiara Mastroianni and Alice Butaud) and parents find his antics amusing -- Ismael's constant clowning seems like the behavior of a highly self-conscious, self-indulgent egoist.
Tragedy strikes as Julie dies -- all too symbolically of cardiac failure. The middle section of the film has everyone at loose ends. Alice moves on but remains concerned for her melancholy ex. Ismael takes a waitress to bed, then a young boy (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). The latter liaison supposedly marks Ismael's return to life and happiness. This may explain much about his faltering relationship with Julie, but it really comes out of nowhere and, frankly, is not very believable.
The musical numbers are often awkward. It's all for the good that Honore avoids an MTV style, but instead he settles for insipid stagings: Characters walk down streets or gaze into space lip-syncing to prerecorded songs. There is scant variety to the numbers, but then there is scant variety to the songs -- they all sound rather alike.
Garrel is often irritating in his contrived oddball behavior, and the two women barely register. Sagnier goes for wistful confusion while Hesme is simply a pal. The other roles are rote except for Mastroianni and Brigitte Rouan as Julie's mother, who create empathetic characters.
Remy Chevrin's cinematography stands out as he captures the vitality of Paris street life with a crisp nonchalance that ignores the fact a million films have been made in that city.
LES CHANSONS D'AMOUR (THE LOVE SONGS)
Alma Films/Flach Film
Screenwriter-director: Christophe Honore
Producer: Paulo Branco
Director of photography: Remy Chevrin
Production designer: Samuel Deshors
Music and lyrics: Alex Beaupain
Costume designer: Pierre Canitrot
Editor: Chantal Delor
Ismael: Louis Garrel
Julie: Ludivine Sagnier
Jeanne: Chiara Mastroianni
Alice: Clotilde Hesme
Erwann: Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
Mother: Brigitte Rouan
Father: Jean-Marie Winling
Gwendal: Yannick Renier
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating