By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Where the great movie musicals of yesteryear put a song in your heart, Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) may leave you with a funny taste in your mouth. How else to describe Honoré’s orally fixated post-postmodern operetta, whose libretto includes lyrics like “Keep your saliva as an antidote/Let it trickle like sweet venom down my throat”? Those bons mots are sung by Alice (Clotilde Hesme), a sprightly Parisian newspaper worker, to her colleague and sometimes bedmate, Ismaël (Louis Garrel), shortly after the third member of their ménage à trois, Ismaël’s girlfriend, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), drops dead of a blood clot outside the famed Les Étoiles nightclub. The dirt on Julie’s grave has barely settled when Alice drifts into the arms of yet another lover, Gwendal (Yannick Renier), while Ismaël beds down with Gwendal’s teenage brother, Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). “But a true love that lasts leaves lovers exhausted/And their overripe kisses rot on our tongues,” beckons the barely legal stripling as he woos the ostensibly hetero Ismaël. No wonder they call French the language of love.
IFC Films and Red Envelope Entertainment
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Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?
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They've got the silver.
Lerner and Loewe this isn’t. Or Comden and Green. But we’re not too far from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 bed-hopping metamusical, A Woman Is a Woman, which followed an impulsive young stripper (played by Anna Karina) as she twirled two men around her little finger — her commitment-phobic boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) and a potential surrogate father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) for her yet-to-be-conceived baby. In a review of The Pajama Game, written for the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard had declared the Hollywood musical to be “in a way, the idealization of cinema.” And Woman, with its throwaway choreography and orchestra that swells in anticipation of nonexistent songs, was Godard’s way of doffing his beret to those splashy tune fests whose self-reflexive storylines and frequent narrative interruptions matched his own sense of movies as an ongoing critique of themselves.
In the process, Godard effectively launched a uniquely French subgenre of minimalist song-and-dance antispectaculars that would come to include works by Jacques Demy (TheUmbrellas of Cherbourg), Chantal Akerman (Window Shopping) and Jacques Rivette (Up/Down/Fragile). Even Honoré, who also began his career as a Cahiers contributor, is no stranger at this table, having placed impromptu musical numbers at the end of two previous films — his 2002 debut feature, 17 Times Cécile Cassard (itself a riff on Demy’s 1961 demi-musical, Lola), and the recent Dans Paris, whose climax has two estranged spouses patching things up by serenading each other over the telephone.
Love Songs, however, is Honoré’s first full-tilt genre outing, and while his earlier films were hardly devoid of their own show-offy cinephilia (Dans Paris aped Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films in the way Love Songs apes Godard while continuing to ape Truffaut), this one has been stripped of everything but its pastiche; it’s as if Pulp Fiction had wandered into Jack Rabbit Slim’s and never left. Perhaps the 37-year-old filmmaker has been paying a little too much attention to his own reviews. Although barely a blip on the radar of most moviegoers and journalists in America, in France, Honoré has been built up by a coterie of influential film magazines (including Studio, Télérama and Les Inrockuptibles) into a nearly messianic figure — the Second Coming of the Nouvelle Vague. That was already apparent in 2006, when the Cannes Film Festival was roundly criticized in the French press for failing to include Dans Paris in the Official Selection (it ended up at the rival Directors Fortnight instead), all but guaranteeing that Love Songs would be offered a Cannes competition slot in 2007. There , it became (along with James Gray’s sub-Lumet New York cop drama We Own the Night) the film that most sharply divided French critics from their international colleagues.
Honoré is not without talent, but Love Songs adds up to considerably less than the sum of its references. What the director seems to have overlooked is that the original New Wave movies he’s so taken to heart were themselves more than collections of moods, poses and literary/cinematic quotations; they were creating a new cinematic language by deconstructing the old one, and they managed to involve us in the lives of their insouciant young protagonists despite their penchant for Brechtian distancing effects.
Love Songs, by contrast, leaves us with little more than a pile of celluloid navel lint. The actors — especially Garrel, who has now done this preening, neo–Jean-Pierre Léaud routine one too many times for anyone’s good — wink and nod at the audience when they’re not sulking about in cooler-than-thou ennui, nulling any investment we might feel in their assorted couplings and triplings. In what may be the ultimate film-buff circle jerk, a lyric from another of Love Songs’ distinctly annoying ditties (written by Honoré’s regular composer, Alex Beaupain) pays homage to Martin Scorsese’s own quotation-heavy 1977 musical, New York, New York, a movie that was the sort of critical and commercial Waterloo the French like to call un film maudit. That Honoré knows a lot about cinema is beyond question — but from first frame to last, Love Songs is as icy to the touch as one character’s premature corpse.
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