Love Songs: Christophe Honore’s Musical

Reviewed by By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival (World Premiere, Competition)–The fourth feature of French filmmaker Christophe Honore, Love Songs marks another attempt to rehabilitate the potency of the movie musical. The film tries valiantly to entwine incandescent to the melancholia and sad eyed romanticism redolent in the format into something more direct and immediate, but to no avail.

It is a difficult and complex process requiring just the right balance of toughness, high style and memorable characterization. A roundelay about grief, absence and resurrection, the movie about contemporary Paris, featuring 13 songs, is better in theory than execution. “Love Songs” has some tender and evocative moments, though they appear too isolated and restricted to make the kind of impression the ambitious and talented filmmaker no doubt intends.

“Love Sogs” is animated by several actors the director clearly has an affinity for. Honores recurring star, Louis Garrel, is a highly skilled and impressive performer, and his is one of several interesting and varied performances.

Nonetheless, the conception feels strangely attenuated and flat. The movie never sings with abandon and fearlessness. “Love Songs” appears remote, and even affected, in trying to assimilate the right form and style. Unfortunately, the film seems permanently caught between the French realist cinema and the more abstracted and anarchic form of French musicals of yesteryear.

“Love Songs” follows such recent pieces as Jacques Rivettes Up Down Fragile, Ducastel and Martineaus Jeanne and the Perfect Guy and Francois Ozons 8 Women. The transcendent model is clearly Jacques Demy, whose musicals Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, have the extraordinary advantage of beautifully, allusive and memorable scores and music by the peerless Michel Legrand. By contrast, Alex Baupains music here is competent though never dramatically revealing and filled with the kind of longing and romantic abandon necessary to carry the work into a higher level.

Honore has previously demonstrated a judicious use of musical selection, like the Turtles Happy Together in the climax of his notorious Ma mere. The struggle is finding the proper tone and stylistic framing. New technology and delivery platforms have diluted the power of the music video in recent years, though the impact and sweeping change on music and filmmaking is hard to understate. The prevalence of music video altered profoundly how we look at and consider movement, cutting and rhythm and its connection to common forms of discourse and talking, communicating and interacting.

Speed and tempo have fractured, accelerated and cut up the look and dramatic shape of the musical. Montage is now the dominant formal shape. It seems pretty incompatible to love the movie musical and not be chagrined by these developments. The classic musical hardly registers in the current culture, and what has been lost is significant, particularly the ability to transform song into action or meaning and movement into emotion.

Love Songs is divided into three parts. It opens with a poetic, sharp portrait of Paris streets and neighborhoods, captured from the interiors of moving cars. An editor and publisher of a Paris newspaper, Garrels Ismael is involved with Ludivine Sagniers smart, attractive Julie.

Stood up by Ismael, Julie turns wistfully toward the camera and reveals her sense of disappointment and regret. Avid for new experiences and a breaking of their romantic and sexual predictability, the couple has recently drawn Ismaels colleague Alice (Clotide Hesme) in a mnage a trios. Given the transgressive and outr underpinnings of Honores other work, the disappointingly underdeveloped and compromised scenario plays more consistently to heighten comic uncertainty than obliterate sexual and social taboos.

The shocking and sudden death of one of the films principals irreversibly alters the movies mood. The early songs about hope and romantic promise turn into a fugue for powerlessness and loss. The early promise dissipates as well. The numbers are repetitive and the performers are too insufficiently skilled and vocally limited to give the numbers any kick or bounce. The plaintive, depressive tonal shift suggests Jean-Luc Godards famous description, a neo-realist musical of his own third feature, A Woman is a Woman, which Godard concluded is a contradiction in terms.

Garrel and the attractive, vibrant Hesme played opposite each other in Regular Lovers, his father Louis Garrels powerful portrait of the social and sexual tumult of the events of May 1968. Hesme is lean and suggestive has a sharp, subversive edge in her physical and body inflections. Louis Garrel is attractive, and the kind of sexuality that goes either way, a rare quality that he plays with some powerful and unsettling effect. The storys fluid and polymorphous shifting sexuality is brought on by the crush of a young school boy, Erwann (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Chiara Mastroianni registers the most powerful and concentrated performance as Julies sister, part of the bohemian familys large brood.

Honore has demonstrated in his other work a feeling for space and rhythm, but that talent is largely absent here. The numbers feel choppy and clogged off motion and reaction. Love Songs does not suffer from a paucity of imagination or ambition. The fact that it fails constitutes a severe disappointment for those of us who passionately and ruthlessly adore and defend the need for a musical. The bright spot is that such works continue to live in some form.

A cinema without musicals is a collective loss, and the movies failure proves the need to never stop trying.