Dir/scr: Christophe Honore Fr. 2007. 95 mins
The genre of the realist-inflected arthouse musical has intermittently thrived in France , ever since it was kick-started by Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Papapluies de Cherbourg). It's an institution that ambitious French directors have returned to with regularity, with even the likes of Godard and Rivette dabbling in it, while the last really successful breakthrough in the field was Ducastel and Martineau's Aids-themed Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable.
So the stakes are high for Love Songs, the follow-up to Christophe Honore's Cannes success last year, Dans Paris, which tentatively threw a little melody into its mix. But Honore's competition entry, while theoretically positioned to take him into the top rank of rising French auteurs, is a self-satisfied damp squib which succeeds neither as realist narrative nor as heart-lifting romance, and which provides a rather unexceptional soundtrack palette for its tale of chic, arty young people grieving and falling in love.
While Alex Beaupain's songs are witty and literate, elegant word-play won't translate easily into subtitles, which won't help sales, given the general resistance of most non-French cultures to the chanson style. Only the most keenly Francophile niche distributors are likely to bite, although festival action should be healthy, given the fashionable profile of Honore and lead actor Louis Garrel. Domestic action, however, should be brisk - and no doubt a fair few soundtrack CDs will be shifted too.
Divided into three chapters - entitled 'The Departure', 'The Absence' and 'The Return', Love Stories follows the romantic and polysexual vagaries of a group of Parisians, centred around Ismaël (Garrel). He lives with his girlfriend Julie (Sagnier), but Ismael's predominantly lesbian co-worker Alice (Hesme) has recently moved in for a menage-a-trois, leaving Ismael feeling somewhat left out. Ismael is also a beloved fixture at the home of Julie's parents (Brigitte Rouan, Jean-Marie Winling), where we also meet her sisters Jasmine (Alice Butaud) and Jeanne (Mastroianni).
Things roll along happily between the characters in a mutually appreciative love-in until one night at a concert, when Julie suddenly collapses and promptly dies of a heart attack. Subsequent episodes follow the characters' - especially Ismael's - attempts to come to terms with her death, usually by reshuffling into new romantic permutations. Alice takes up with a Breton guy named Gwendal, whose puppyish schoolboy brother Erwann (Leprince-Ringuet) starts hotly pursuing a not-uninterested Ismael.
Honore has shifted his approach considerably since his sombre early features 16 X Cecile Cassard and the Georges Bataille adaptation Ma Mère. This film is in keeping with playful breeziness of Dans Paris, but without that film's extravagant formal play. Played like a realist psychodrama in which characters simply happen burst into song, Love Songs proves surprisingly short on stylistic brio, as if Honore were concentrating too hard on getting the songs right to really let loose.
The film makes ample use, in a nod to early nouvelle vague shooting style, of everyday Paris locations while other nods to Godard are inescapable: the frequent inserts of neon signs, the preoccupation with covers of literary paperbacks, and the arch title sequence which simply gives us surnames without credits.
A key problem is Louis Garrel's performance, which pushes further his flamboyant turn in Dans Paris: as a happy-go-lucky clown, who's keenly aware of his attractiveness, Ismael comes across as neurotic and insufferably self-absorbed, especially when putting on comic voices to amuse Julie's family (instead of helping with the washing up). Among the other performers, Sagnier is insipid and a strong Mastroianni oddly under-used, with Hesme making a vivacious impression, mixing brains and chic.
As a musical, the film leaves much to be desired, its brief dance sequences seemingly improvised rather than choreographed. Alex Beaupain's songs are very much in a standard idiom of rock-tinged modern chanson, but while his lyrics are intelligent and wittily rhymed, their music is simply too repetitive. The song's overall tendency to blandness is not helped by the reedily generic singing voices of the cast, Sagnier and Mastroianni in particular; Garrel, on the other hand, is a passable crooner, while Winling proves to have a mature command of phrasing, à la Yves Montand.
Largely coming across as a self-congratulatory, knowingly hip exercise, Love Songs won't impress lovers of Jacques Demy, who will simply lament that they don't write them like that any more.
BAC Films (France)