[…] one of the most un-musical-like musicals that have recently graced the screen. Its formal honesty will be startling for those used to the baroque tongue-in-cheek musicals that are made nowadays.
“But it’s a musical!” One of my acquaintances was convinced that I wouldn’t want to see Les chansons d'amour, especially after having disliked Christophe Honoré’s previous film, Dans Paris. Reading that Rotten Tomatoes review may put that idea to rest; This film could hardly be more French: the music fits the plot perfectly, the words are poetic but elegant as well, and they have no difficulty in sitting side-by-side with the heavily bourgeois-bohemian dialogues. This isn’t for someone who can’t cross the language barrier, though: I think it must be untranslatable. I doubt, however, if that thought even entered M Honoré’s mind and indeed, I can safely predict that his film is so Parisian it will not have any real success beyond the boulevard périphérique.
The elegant scenario, music and set are put to best advantage by the acting. Louis Garrel is a full shoulder above the rest: he comes damned close to perfection, actually, with an insolence that manages to stay kind and simple. His nose is highly intriguing. Yet it is the quartet he forms with Ludivine Sagnier, Chiara Mastroianni and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet that set my seal of approval on the film. It’s totally genuine in that completely French way and it’s also distinctly contemporary, set in the Paris of today that I alternately love and hate. There is a hint, also, in it, of Gaël Morel, another French film director who worked with M Honoré on this production and whose style is pretty evident in some of the scenes:
But quite apart from the acting, it’s the film’s sociological dimension that is perhaps most interesting. M Honoré’s description of young Parisian bourgeois-bohemians living in the dixième arrondissement is as accurate as it is gripping. He shows us the porte Saint-Denis, with its contrasting ugliness and beauty, in a way that I had never perceived it before. Back in my cozy huitième, I determined to go and have a closer look at the dixième, with which I have a long love-hate relationship.
The message, if there is one at all, rings the right bells: Ismaël, played by Louis Garrel, is typical of today’s French youth. He refuses being locked into a role, whether that of lover or that of friend. He refuses any label, and I think he’s quite right in that. He isn’t obsessed by the idea that relationships always have to conform to traditional models, but he never disparages them either. The irony is that his supposedly super-cool parents, who are from the May 1968 hippie generation, are taken rather aback by this. That is yet another reason why the film is incredibly modern, incredibly lucid despite the fact that I know a lot of the people reading this will find it ridiculously narrow-minded and self-obsessed. Which it also is, of course, in a way.
I really don’t mind either if M Honoré uses the film to send somewhat unsubtle political messages. After all, the film was shot in the midst of an intense political campaign, and this probably adds to its authenticity: two thirds of the bourgeois-bohemians who are depicted in it voted against M Sarkozy in last month’s presidential election. I don’t see why I should have a problem with that. After all, art, for me, isn’t about politics, and I’m always pleased to see that French film directors are still capable of producing the best.