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Review: "Love Songs" (Honoré, France)

Love Songs
Above: Clotilde Hesme, Ludivine Sagnier, and Louis Garrel.
Christophe Honoré's Love Songs is in many ways a conscious rediscovery of the tradition of the French musical, engaging most specifically with Jacques Demy's masterful The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Honoré, like Demy, is Breton; he has said that Demy's film inspired his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker. Honoré's film attempts to modernize the 'new wave' musical by placing it into a 21st century social context. Honoré's recontextualization does not extend to his formal approach, but his narrative and settings are defiantly current.
Love Songs uses the same three section titles as Umbrellas, but like the rest of the film's explicit Demy-references they are put to an independent purpose. Which is to say, Honoré keeps his homage mainly in his back pocket, leaning less on postmodern form than on postmodern social mores. The film's borrowed section titles (departure, absence, return) relate in only abstract ways to Demy's narrative.
The film stars three of the most successful (and gorgeous) young actors working in France - Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, and Clotilde Hesme - as well as the also-lovely Chiara Mastroianni and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. Garrel, Sagnier, and Hesme start the film in a three-way relationship that is sexy only by implication, and mostly comic. It's also full of small jealousies and histories that the songs clarify. Rather than offer a mosaic of love in Paris as told through the paths of three intersecting characters, the narrative focuses stays firmly on Louis Garrel's Ismaël. Other characters are shown to us mainly through their intersections with Ismaël's world. This has the surprising effect of broadening the scope of the film, leaving us to fill in the missing pieces in the stories of other characters. Like his use of a stripped-down 3-act structure, it's one way in which Honore's simplicity leads to a complex emotional experience.
Honoré's visions seems tied to an invisible politics - that is, he chooses to present politics apolitically, without advocacy or calling attention to his agenda. This serves his interest in character above ideology, but also makes his politics that much more successful by normalizing them. The 'politics' I'm referring to here are his casual embrace of bisexuality and a Paris full of people whose origins are not "French" - Chinese, Jewish, Breton. Honore's Paris is casually multicultural and casually polysexual. This is the defining 'modernism' of his vision, and some of what makes it seem not just endearingly current but also an accurate portrait of the social world of our age. In the same modern spirit, the film's view of love is a bit unromantic but perhaps more 'realistic.' As the film develops, and "departure" leads to (permanent) "absence," love becomes a tool for dealing with the past and healing in the present. The "return" of the final section is the return of connection with the world, made possible by a new relationship. The film's final note is one of openness but doesn't offer the permanent closure of a fairy tale. Like Honoré's inspiration, this film accepts the need for living in the world rather than holding to fairy-tale dreams.
Love Songs is sporadically adorable, but is held back by some less fully realized elements. The cast is very good, but the songs they are given to sing are sometimes unimpressive. Both the music and the lyrics often seem to fade from memory as soon as the song is finished. I wasn't blown away by directorial choices with the camera or editing. One homage to Umbrellas of Cherbourg in particular seemed misplaced, or a little silly: Ludivine Sagnier moving away from the camera on a dolly. I was especially surprised that color wasn't used more explicitly as an expressive tool, given the film's reimagination of elements from one of the great color films. I was also disappointed that the film doesn't make an especially clear stylistic break between musical and non-musical space. I didn't feel especially emotionally connected to these characters, and would have liked Clotilde Hesme's character to be more fully integrated in Ismaël's life.
All of the above should be taken with the following two grains of salt: First, I think Love Songs is an enjoyable film, and one worth seeing for those who like musicals or the charismatic screen presences of it's stars. Second, for me personally a film that sets itself as homage to Umbrellas of Cherbourg is doomed to 'failure' by the untouchable greatness its predecessor. There's no film that moves me more, or that I think of more highly, than Demy's masterpiece.
With both of these in mind, I do see Love Songs as a worthwhile offering in a mostly forgotten genre for which I hold deep affection. Honoré and his cast offer beautiful moments if not enough of them to compete with his inspiration (Chiara Mastroianni has one song in particular that truly leaves an impression, one of the most poetically shot moments of the film). Love Songs is recommended if sometimes slight and lacking the directorial sleight-of-hand that makes a great film.

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