Love Songs

Boys in bed: Louis Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet almost, but not quite, make Love Songs (IFC Films) something to sing about.

The publicity for this exceedingly poor film from writer-director Christophe Honoré tries to put one over on the susceptible: Someone determined that in order to swindle the art-house public into taking a chance on Love Songs, it’s necessary for the moviemakers to hitch their wagon to Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This ploy was also trotted out, to an extent, with Honoré’s previous bad movie, the near-execrable Dans Paris. Here, as there, nothing could be further from truth. There is no connection whatsoever between Cherbourg and Love Songs; not even the casting of Catherine Deneuve’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, in a supporting role can stake a claim of spiritual kinship. Demy’s film was, and remains, overwhelming in its depth of emotional engagement. Honoré’s film is shallow, enervated, and trivial. Demy, at least in Cherbourg as well as in his less appreciated yet superior The Young Girls of Rochefort, was an artist; Honoré, on the other hand, merely wishes to be an artist, though he evinces no indications of becoming one. And if Honoré is no Demy, then Alex Beaupain, the “composer” of this movie’s score, is no Michel Legrand. Once you’ve heard a Legrand melody, be it the sweeping romantic tempest of Cherbourg’s main theme or another set of florally repetitive motifs, you cannot—Heaven help us—dispel them from the windmills of your mind. Legrand’s music parasitically invades our collective consciousness, whether we want it to or not, and music that you cannot get out of your head eventually nestles itself into a piece of your soul. Beaupain’s contributions consist almost entirely of flat, unmelodic pop wedded to inane lyrics. There isn’t a single memorable hook anywhere in Beaupain’s lazy, uninspired, not especially musical—oh, God, what’s the word I’m searching for here?—“numbers.”

The actors in Love Songs do their own singing, and this they manage reasonably well, given the poverty of the material. An interview in the press notes quotes Beaupain as saying, “…the experience of making Romain Duris sing in Dans Paris…convinced us that an actor, even without any vocal technique, has qualities of interpretation and intention that make him ten times more moving than a professional singer.” If Beaupain genuinely believes this, it’s hardly a wonder that his songs are so irredeemably vapid. Consider these lyrics: “The rain falls without care/Over family meals we have to bear,” followed by a third line that has something to do with the glare in the square. If that isn’t simplistic enough, try this sterling strophe, sung by Louis Garrel to Ludivine Sagnier, “Little bitch, that’s so cheap/Your jealousy won’t make me weep,” timed to drumming so mechanically steady a machine could be pounding it out. But the coup de grace among Beaupain’s rhymes has got to be: “A chill grips your land these days/What to do in this wintry maze?” Are there dopes for whom this constitutes poetry? Even accounting for what the English translation loses, the sentiments Beaupain expresses in approximately eleven of the film’s thirteen ditties are drivel.

A hack reviewer or two has gone along with the Cherbourg charade. “Love Songs,” glistens Kevin Thomas in an egregiously misleading LA Times puff piece, “will inevitably recall Jacques Demy’s classic.” No, it won’t. Not if viewers call a spade a spade and see these false comparisons for what they are: an insult to Demy. Although Honoré wants to siphon a little of the love and affection felt for Demy’s musicals onto his own, his actual sensibility feels more like shoplifted Godard; to this end, he takes visual cues straight out of A Woman is a Woman. Honoré’s camera glides over close-ups of text; when his characters read paperbacks in bed, just as in Godard, the camera parks long enough for us to catch the titles, to intuit whatever oblique connections, if any, the director wants to push. Yet Honoré’s allusions to A Woman is a Woman are largely lacking in that 1961 film’s flaky charm. It’s Louis Garrel, as the supposedly Jewish Ishmaël, rather than the women of Love Songs, who’s allotted a bit of Anna Karina’s ingratiating goofiness, as when he rattles off, “I couldn’t even locate Tel Aviv on a map of Palestine.”

Honoré ought to have made a picture called A Man is a Man, or A Boy is a Boy, or even A Boy is a Man, because the heterosexual components of Love Songs he flubs altogether. The bisexual and gay elements are where his real interests lie, so much so that by the picture’s end I thought what the filmmaker needed to do was trim the long preamble that leads to Ishmaël becoming a widower while still in his twenties, and instead begin closer to Ishmaël’s being stalked (and eventually seduced) by the student Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), whom Honoré brings into the frame bare legs first.

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In Dans Paris and Love Songs, Honoré’s young men are vastly prettier than the young women. Let me be a shade more precise about that: The men are beautiful, and their dates/lovers/partners are hags. (Among elderly couples, Honoré reverses this, making wise mothers lovely and ineffectual fathers a hazard for the eyes.) And the director’s clearly beguiled by Garrel’s alabaster beauty and onyx-colored corkscrew curls. The best thing Honoré does is to pair Ishmaël up with Erwann, who has a fresh, gorgeous face and a believable, unforced presence—important qualities for a seducer to have. Via plot devices that aren’t worth recounting, Ishmaël spends a few nights at the apartment Erwann shares with an older brother, and he awakens one morning (or afternoon?) to the flash of Erwann’s camera snapping up those vestiges of slumber, because, the photographer explains, “You’re the first guy to sleep in my bed.” Later, moving beyond playfulness, in a fairly well written scene, Erwann waits outside the newspaper office where Ishmaël finishes his shift at 3 AM, and he imploringly comes on to the “older man” by asking, “You have no doubts? You don’t need anyone?” Honoré’s treatment of intimacy up to this point has been risible; here, it’s insightful, even kind of erotic. When the two of them volley a duet arguing the pros and cons of sleeping together, there’s a frisson of heat that was nowhere in Garrel’s earlier singspiels with Sagnier or Clotilde Hesme. (Hesme, as Ishmaël’s co-worker Alice, receives the lion’s share of the director’s contempt: In a nightclub sequence, she’s lit to resemble a female impersonator, complete with fright wig and a hideously ugly brown nylon dress stitched with sequined black moons; worse still, when Sagnier collapses on the sidewalk outside the bar, Hesme’s Alice blithely bops around in hateful indifference to her friend’s obvious suffering.)

By daylight, Honoré stages a second round for the boys that shows a expanding sense of spatial inventiveness. Hoping to snag glances at Ishmaël, Erwann peers down into the street-level windows of the basement office, its interior at his feet. Turning the corner at the opposite end of the lane, Ishmaël spies Erwann, then dodges back in the direction he came from. One calls the other on his cell phone, and the two face each other on opposite corners, still talking into their mobiles.

Both actors are extraordinarily good. Leprince-Ringuet, in a tricky role, makes Erwann charming and desirable, and the actor has such guileless innocence, he can even get away with singing this dreadful verse: “I am a Breton/I smell of ocean, crepe, and lemon.” Being Ishmaël gives Garrel the opportunity to do what he ought to have done with Michael Pitt in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, had the film not been such a compromise of Gilbert Adair’s source material. With electric guitars continually revving on the soundtrack (not at all a bad effect), the men have their sex scene after the usual delays, and everything about it, from Ishmaël’s last song of hesitation and resignation, sung as he’s already naked and in the boy’s caressing arms, to the authentic portrayal of Erwann’s ecstasy over a fantasy realized, Honoré handles with greater delicacy and, yes, excitement than anything else. The writer-director is onto something here—what kicks in the bisexual impulses of a man who’s been predominantly heterosexual? Honoré, however, doesn’t get to this until near the very end, so that about the time the movie blooms, it’s over.

It’s worth mentioning how adroitly the cinematographer Rémy Chevrin lenses Paris in winter—the exterior shots of stone, marble, bare trees, and white sky contribute a palpable sense of how cold it must be on the January days and nights of the story’s setting. And that brings me to Chiara Mastroianni, who has a few ghostly, close to sublime moments as the older sister of a dead woman. Mastroianni’s work belongs in a better film. As Jeanne, she takes to occupying the apartment her late sibling shared with Ishmaël, and she’s supremely haunting as a woman in need of a certain kind of impossible closeness, a drive to quilt memory and the clothes and linens and photographs left behind into a refuge, a comfort. Time seemingly freezes for Jeanne, whose theme song might be Abbey Lincoln’s recording of Langston Hughes’s “Lonely House,” a quietly dark piece of chamber jazz where you can hear the sound of a clock ticking, but have no other sense of time passing—an internal space that matches Jeanne’s state of loss. “We deal with grief as we can,” she tells Ishmaël, in a perfectly life-sized confrontation after Jeanne discovers his new proclivities. She has a wonderfully plaintive moment alone in the park, the pale somberness of her face offset by the black overcoat and long blue scarf she wears. But neither this nor the passion between the male lovers can fully compensate for the director’s multitude of sins in getting there.

April 28, 2008

Love Songs screens the week of May 2-8 at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.

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