Les chansons d'amour Review
The subject of bereavement, loss, depression and the tying of those emotions to a sexual reawakening have been a feature of Christophe Honoré’s films since the former author directed his first film in 2002. Seeking to find the best means of expressing this theme in his earlier films eluded the director, resulting in his swinging from the emotional surrealism of 17 Fois Cécile Cassard to the more direct realism of the Pasolini-influenced techniques on Ma Mère. It was only in his third feature Dans Paris and through drawing from the style and mood of classic Nouvelle Vague films from the 60s that Christophe Honoré found a suitable mood that would express the complexities of the strong emotional content of his work.
If his discovery of a successful method can be pinned down to one moment in Dans Paris, it’s when Roman Duris’s character, deeply depressed and near-suicidal, finds a way to reconnect with the world and express the feelings he has been finding difficult to come to terms with by singing a song down the phone to his girlfriend. There are however several such moments in the film – including one where Duris memorably finds a brief moment of release in singing along to an old Kim Wilde record – all of which allow the director to break through the constraints of cinematic realism and touch on a deeper emotional truth.
The answer then, in retrospect, should have been obvious. Composer and friend Alex Beaupain had worked on Honoré’s first film and shared experiences in their lives had worked their way into several of the songs written by Beaupain. When asked to quickly follow up on the success of Dans Paris, it became obvious that the material he needed was there and the method had been successfully tested. Extending that out into a full-length musical feature however presented greater challenges for which there are few obvious precedents in French cinema. Yet, retaining that essential French - and not only French but specifically Parisian – quality was just as important to Honoré, making the film work as a tragicomic drama and a musical without taking the viewer out of the moment through a big song-and-dance number or extending the film into a series of music promo videos.
That is achieved brilliantly in Les chansons d’amour’s love-triangle story, where Ismaël (Louis Garrel), a young man who works as a journalist on a small Parisian periodical, is caught up in a ménage à trois with his girlfriend Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and a girl who works at his office, Alice (Clotilde Hesme – also Garrel’s co-star in Les Amants Réguliers). The situation is however starting to become a bit more of a strain than it once was, and not least because of the difficulty of getting to sleep when there are three people sharing a bed. Julie has misgivings about the situation, but when it does come to an end, it does so tragically. Unable to pull himself together, lost and unable to settle down in the apartment they once all shared together, Ismaël walks the streets of Paris alone, has casual sexual encounters, but is unable to shift the deep emptiness that lies within him, resisting even the advances of a young man Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) who may be able to bring him back to life.
The music and the manner in which it is employed is key to making the story and the underlying emotional journey work, and it works quite brilliantly. Filmed almost on the run on the boulevards and sidestreets of the Bastille quarter with its large ethnic community, Honoré manages to channel the emotional realism of Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain’s love-triangle relationship with the carefree insouciance of the Nouvelle Vague and the music, romance and colour of Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. The director also finds the perfect vehicle for this unlikely blend in Louis Garrel, whose comic ability to balance the lightness of tone with the underlying reality of the serious subject matter was demonstrated in the director’s previous film Dans Paris. Here the young actor rises to the challenge, demonstrating in the process a fine singing voice. As well as successfully establishing the story’s complex emotional attachments through this technique, Honoré also in the process touches on the essential character of the real Paris itself much better than any other modern French director, taking the film far away from the usual tourist spots and out onto the streets where, essentially to the meaning of the film, ordinary people and families live out the loves, the heartbreaks, disappointments and the tragedies in their lives.
Les chansons d’amour is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The transfer to DVD is everything you could hope for and if it’s lacking in any way it’s down to the limitations of Standard Definition DVD. The transfer is anamorphic at 1.85:1 and progressively encoded. Colours are well defined, slightly muted with an accuracy of tone. Blacks can be a little flat in places, but only with difficult dark interior shots, and even there, they hold up well, never breaking-up or becoming discoloured with low-level noise. Clarity and detail is impressive throughout, the gradation of tones becoming apparent in skin tones on close-up shots. There is not a mark or dust-spot to be seen anywhere.
The listener is given a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. It’s the latter surround track that is clearly the way to go here, spreading the voices and musical arrangements in a much more subtle and effective way. The tone is good and there are no obvious problems. Curiously, though certainly not at all significantly, the sound cuts out abruptly during the last 20 seconds of the credits. I hardly think it’s going to merit a recall.
English subtitles are optional and in a clear white font. It’s a difficult film to translate, keeping the rhyme and meter of the songs while staying faithful to their meaning, but by and large, the translation achieves this effectively. A little more problematic are sequences where there is simultaneous dialogue and songs. The subtitles try to capture a balance, but unless you speak French, it’s not always clear what is being sung and what is being said. I would have preferred an additional line at the top of the screen for these occasions, but it’s not something that happens often and there is little of any significance that is lost. It’s just one of the hazards of subtitling foreign films.
Interview with Christophe Honoré (32:58)
Always an open and honest interviewee, Honoré is always interesting to listen to. In this exclusive interview he talks about the genesis of the film and the approach that was adopted in putting the songs onto the screen, giving credit to the contributions of Alex Beaupain, Louis Garrell and Ludivine Sagnier.
Theatrical Trailer (1:48)
The trailer is excellent. After watching the film itself, the trailer reminds you how many emotions and situations the film has successfully navigated over such a short period of time.
Filmographies are provided for Christophe Honoré, Louis Garrell and Ludivine Sagnier.
Les chansons d’amour is not merely a pastiche of French New Wave films and classic musicals, rather Christophe Honoré draws on their freedoms and means of expression, and finds in them is own way of expressing the lives and the complex inner feelings of his characters in a completely new and modern way. The film looks fabulous and so does Artificial Eye’s UK DVD release, with a superb transfer and informative interview with the director.