On Connaît la Chanson Review
A musical comedy of tangled relationships, On Connaît La Chanson might seem like a bit of light-hearted fluff, particularly for a director as challenging and experimental as Alain Resnais, but in this film, Resnais brings together a number of themes that interest him. A great fan of Dennis Potter, Resnais had used musical interludes in his films before, to unusual and experimental effect in La Vie Est Un Roman. He has also demonstrated a fondness for old-fashioned French stage comedy and melodrama, from Mèlo to his most recent musical Pas Sur La Bouche. Having previously worked with Resnais on his Smoking/No Smoking set of films, Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri delivered another lively and witty script for On Connaît La Chanson (The Same Old Song) that fits comfortably into this side of the director’s latter day films.
Jaoui and Bacri’s script has all the same entanglement of relationships and emotions as their own films Le Goût des Autres and Comme une Image (Look At Me), an impression that their central acting roles in On Connaît La Chanson underlines. Bacri plays Nicolas, a hypochondriac businessman who is looking for an apartment in Paris. While in town, he makes the acquaintance of an old friend Odile Lalande (Sabine Azema). Odile is also looking for an apartment, as she is fed-up with her dull life with her husband Claude (who else but her regular on-screen husband, Pierre Arditi) and recommends her estate agent, Marc (Lambert Wilson). One of Marc’s employees, Simon (André Dussollier), takes Nicolas around a number of apartments, but with his marriage on the point of breaking up, Nicolas can’t decide whether he needs a studio or a bigger apartment. In his spare time Simon is a radio playwright, with a keen interest in the history of Paris. During his lunch breaks, he attends guided tours given by Camille (Agnès Jaoui), who he has a crush on, but Camille, unbeknownst to him, has met and started to go out with his boss, Marc, after meeting him while looking at an apartment with her sister, Odile.
It’s a typically complex web of characters and relationships in which Jaoui and Bacri contrive to entangle the viewer and drive towards an ensemble conclusion where each of the characters motivations, problems and secrets they are revealed in a typically unusual Resnais manner involving jellyfish. To add further to the richness of the mix, the characters frequently break into song to express unspoken emotions or desires. This technique is clearly inspired by Dennis Potter - On Connaît La Chanson is dedicated as a homage to Potter – and is particularly evident in the use of very old standards, the subtexts of which are given a fresh meaning by placing them in a new modern context. However, unlike Potter who would often use these singing excerpts to reflect the interior fantasies of his protagonists in musical-style routine, Resnais generally only uses one or two lines from a song at a time, sometimes as a refrain or theme for certain characters, more often to express fleeting emotions. It works fairly well, though you often wish he would let loose and go for the full musical piece, as he would later do so wonderfully in Pas Sur La Bouche. The songs, all French standards by the likes of Charles Aznavour, Jacques Dutronc, Johnny Hallyday and Maurice Chevalier, would also have more associations and resonances for French audiences, although they are well translated, retaining rhyme and meter into English in the subtitles. There are also a number of in-jokes that again perhaps only a French audience would catch, such as a girl in a restaurant speaking the lines of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien conversationally when you would expect them to be sung in this film, and Jane Birkin, making a cameo appearance as Nicolas’ wife, singing one of her own songs.
On Connaît La Chanson is certainly lightweight entertainment, but enjoyably so, particularly for anyone who enjoys that lighter touch that Jaoui and Bacri bring to normally serious and angst-ridden complexities of French relationship dramas. In addition to Jaoui and Bacri, as ever both marvellous in their roles, you have the dream set of regular Resnais actors – Arditi doing his wonderful hangdog look to perfection, Azema throwing herself entirely into her character and the singing parts with the same verve that would make Pas Sur La Bouche so memorable, Dussollier again showing his versatility in taking on an entirely different character with every Resnais film and successfully falling into the role. All this is perfectly “in tune” with Resnais’ unerring sense of pace, tone and direction.
On Connaît La Chanson is part of Pathé’s new “Your Other Cinema” range, presenting titles from their back catalogue unreleased so far on DVD in fairly barebones editions. Rather like MGM’s treatment of their back catalogue, the titles reviewed so far on DVD Times (Les Destinées Sentimentales, Le Dîner de Cons and Ma Vie Sexuelle) Pathé have put little effort into these releases and most have been in pretty poor condition. This is also the case with On Connaît La Chanson, which like Les Destinées Sentimentales is particularly galling since Pathé already have a perfectly good English subtitled DVD edition available in France.
The video quality of the transfer used for this DVD release is really substandard. The image is often so soft, hazy and grainy that it is practically out of focus. Occasional macro-blocking artefacts are visible, white trails of ghosting and cross colouration can be seen in backgrounds, but for the most part the image is stable. The low-definition transfer, possibly for a video master, has a mesh-like overlay that makes the print look like it is being viewed through a net curtain. Indoor colours are oversaturated, while exteriors look dull and faded. Blacks are flat, dark and show no shadow detail whatsoever. There are a few larger white marks on the print, but they are not that common. The transfer is at least anamorphic.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 (as opposed to Dolby Digital 5.1 on the French edition), but the quality is reasonably good, dialogue and music coming across quite clearly.
English subtitles are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. They are however appropriately sized. Pathé’s French DVD offers optional English subtitles.
As a budget, barebones release for the UK, there are none of the extra features found on the French DVD edition.
On Connaît La Chanson is a delightful musical comedy and a wonderful collaboration between the Jaoui/Bacri partnership and Alain Resnais with his regular cast and crew. The complexity of the relationships between the characters and their own struggles with issues as varied as depression, hypochondria and love affairs is given a lightness and freshness of touch, both through the music, the direction and the performances that allows for some subtleties to be explored. It’s nice to see the film finally brought to DVD in the UK, but this is really a poor quality release from Pathé, particularly for this kind of film. As with Les Destinées Sentimentales, On Connaît La Chanson deserves better treatment on DVD and, fortunately, the French editions meet those requirements.