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.
Doing Honoré one better, the Rolling Stones once starred in their very own Jean-Luc Godard movie, 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil, in which footage of the band rehearsing the title song in a London recording studio was regularly upstaged by Godard’s polemical interludes featuring supposed black-power revolutionaries reading from ersatz political texts while torturing white women in a stylized junkyard. This week, the Stones are back on the big screen in a concert documentary that’s all rock and no politics (except those of the backstage variety), and, well, there’s no other way to put it: It’s a gas.
The movie is called Shine a Light, and as you may already know, it was directed by Martin Scorsese, who shot the film in the fall of 2006, just as he was in the midst of releasing The Departed. Those frantic days of preproduction now make up the opening passages of Shine a Light, as the director and his crew (a small army of the world’s best cinematographers, under the supervision of Oscar winner Robert Richardson) fret over the particulars at New York’s Beacon Theatre, while the band — then on the road during their A Bigger Bang tour — stealthily evade Scorsese’s efforts to get them on the phone. When they finally do connect, Mick Jagger is quick to announce his dislike of movie cameras, especially those that “whiz around all the time” and “annoy the audience.”
It’s a curious opening act, at once self-serving and revealing: a movie about the greatest rock band of all time that begins as a portrait of its famously intense, perfectionist director (who, in fairness, already has one of the greatest concert movies of all time — The Last Waltz — under his belt). Are we seeing the real “Marty” here or a canny extension of the live-TV director he memorably played in King of Comedy? * Is this life, or just a feature-length American Express commercial? Such questions fall away as soon as Scorsese is finally handed a set list, the lights go down and — as the Stones take the stage in a sudden eruption of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” — the previously standard-size image enlarges to fill the ginormous IMAX screen.
Shine a Light is being released in normal 35 mm cinemas too, where I suspect it won’t disappoint; but I saw it in IMAX and I urge you to do the same. Visually and sonically, it’s spellbinding, and quite unlike any other concert documentary, or IMAX movie, I’ve ever seen. In the 40 years between Godard and Scorsese, the Stones have been subject to no shortage of celluloid immortalizations, ranging from the political (the Maysles brothers’ historic 1970 Gimme Shelter) to the de-mythological (Robert Frank’s famously suppressed 1972 Cocksucker Blues) to the reverential (Hal Ashby’s flaccid 1983 Let’s Spend the Night Together). They’ve even been filmed in IMAX once before, for 1991’s At the Max. And while those films vary dramatically in quality, what they share is an emphasis on the bigness of the Stones — the huge arenas, the hordes of screaming fans. Scorsese takes the opposite approach. When the band initially suggested that Scorsese film them performing before a crowd of 1 million on the beach in Rio, he counterproposed New York and the Beacon (which seats a mere 2,800), and the result is a live-music film of uncommonly intimate proportions.
In fact, to call Shine a Light a documentary doesn’t quite nail it; it’s more of a macro-mentary, shot in such tight close-up that you can see the fillings in Mick’s teeth and the sweat stains in the armpits of his sequined magenta top. I’m not giving much away to say that Scorsese ultimately wins his battle for the whizzing, swooping, pirouetting camera (in addition to more than a dozen others shooting from more conventional angles), and it has the effect of putting us not in the front row or in the wings but right up onstage and then some. It gives us a gnat’s-eye view. (The sound mix, which renders every guitar lick and horn riff with exceptional clarity, is equally impressive.)
Though it occasionally cuts away to archival footage from the ’60s, Shine a Light doesn’t strive to be an all-encompassing Stones anthology on the order of Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, and despite a smattering of celebrity guest stars (Jagger memorably duets with Jack White on an ebullient “Loving Cup”; the legendary Louisiana blues man Buddy Guy stops by for a scintillating cover of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer”) and a few shots of Bill Clinton in the audience, it’s not some nostalgic, legends-night revue either. What we get is something rarer: We’re seeing one great artist (Scorsese) trying to figure out what makes another (the Stones) tick, scrutinizing their every move, seldom breaking their (which is to say Jagger’s) entraining gaze.
There are some marvelous moments of Keith Richards here, flashing a blissful, private smile during “She Was Hot” and singing a beautifully craggy rendition (reportedly at Scorsese’s urging) of “You Got the Silver.” But like most Stones documentaries — and Stones concerts — Shine a Light quickly becomes the Mick Show, with Jagger, 63 when the film was shot, strutting his coquettish strut and wriggling his Saint Vitus exultations to electrifying effect. What was once the restless, carnal physicality of a rebel youth now seems a voodoo dance against the ravages of time and old age.
In the music-video era, concert films themselves have become something of an endangered species, but in making Shine a Light for the biggest screens around, Scorsese has at once revitalized the genre and set a new standard for it. It is, I suspect, the Stones movie that will be remembered, along with Gimme Shelter, as something of a definitive record — one for capturing the band in their prime, the other for capturing them in a golden, late-autumn glow. It’s one of the ones Scorsese will be remembered for too. He may have finally won his long-coveted Oscar for The Departed — a highly enjoyable piece of pulp that only occasionally flirted with greatness — but Shine a Light is close to a masterpiece.
LOVE SONGS (LES CHANSONS D’AMOUR) | Written and directed by CHRISTOPHE HONORÉ | Produced by PAULO BRANCO | Released by IFC Films and Red Envelope Entertainment | Music Hall
SHINE A LIGHT | Directed by MARTIN SCORSESE | Produced by VICTORIA PEARMAN, MICHAEL COHL, ZANE WEINER and STEVE BING | Released by Paramount Classics | Selected theaters
* In earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Scorsese played a TV director in Quiz Show. He played a director in The King of Comedy.