I have to admit that I once turned off a Christophe Honoré film (Ma Mère) long before it ended, and I have been skeptical of his work ever since. But I do have a bit of a thing for musicals, especially those diverting from what we're used to, and I therefore went into the filmmaker's latest, an unconventional musical titled Love Songs (literally translated from the French Les Chansons d'Amour), with modestly open arms. Plus, I realize that as a critic I need not see every film made by every director (I have not seen Dans Paris, Honoré's film between Ma Mère and Love Songs, for instance), but I need to at least give some well-regarded filmmakers a second chance.
Unfortunately, Love Songs didn't really do it for me, either. As I said, it is a musical, and not in the big and lavish Hollywood sense. Yet not really in the all-singing sense of Jacques Demy's films, either, despite the many comparisons being made between Love Songs and Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Sure, Honoré's film features songs sung in a similarly recitative style, and yes, there is the referential connection of Love Songs co-starring Chiara Mastroianni and Cherbourg starring her mother, Catherine Deneuve. But the dialogue in Love Songs is primarily spoken non-musically, and the film would actually have worked, and been better off, in my opinion, if it didn't feature any of its 14 songs at all.
The film begins as the story of a threesome, consisting of Ismael (Luis Garrel), Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme). From the start there is tension within the trio, particularly between original couple Ismael and Julie. But then Julie dies, of heart failure, of course, and things become tragically more complicated than were before. Much of the subsequent drama comes from the awkwardness of Ismael's relationship to Julie's family, including her older sister, Jeanne (Mastroianni), because it seems clear, to the audience at least, that Ismael was possibly on the verge of breaking up with Julie anyway. And now he's expected to act more the mourner than he's capable -- not shacking up with new partners, as he is apparently capable of doing.
The songs, all composed by Alex Beaupain, most if not all pre-existing, occur at very emotional times, as though the lyrics fill in for what the characters are uncomfortable speaking plainly. For example, when Julie grows jealous of the attention Ismael is paying to Alice, she breaks into a somewhat argumentative song, and her two partners then join her in expressing lyrically what they responsively feel. In a way, I see parallels between Love Songs and typical Bollywood musicals, which tend to feature a musical number at each of their most heightened melodramatic moments. However, the songs in this film are less interruptive, the dialogue more fluidly switching to lyric and vice versa, and certainly it would be an understatement to say that the musical numbers here are less a spectacle than those in most Bollywood films.
In fact the numbers in Love Songs are rather dull. They're fairly simple, monotonous pop songs with lyrics that seem especially unimaginative when translated and subtitled at the bottom of the screen. And they're performed by relatively untrained singers, which seems to be the trend these days (if only Audrey Hepburn was doing My Fair Lady in the era of Sweeney Todd). After seeing the film, I listened to the tunes again without the accompaniment of visuals or text and enjoyed them a little better, which led me to believe that any musical's lyrics are going to seem bare and maybe even cheesy when their words are displayed so prominently and comprehended so consciously. But then I recalled some other songs I've simultaneously read and heard via film, including those of Bollywood, and concluded that Beaupain's tunes are indeed just uninteresting.
It's a shame, because the actual story is very interesting. There's something fascinating about the sad but certainly often true idea that a left-behind lover may not be feeling great loss. I especially loved the relationship between Ismael and Jeanne, as she continually catches him in bed with someone she assumes is Alice (Julie had told her mother and sisters about the ménage a trios). I didn't, however, completely buy a relationship that develops between Ismael and a young male student named Erwann (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), because the latter comes across as a real nuisance (to Ismael and the audience) and the former seems overall just too ambivalent a lover to accept as wholly as interested as he's made out to be.
I'll give Love Songs points for indeed having a good narrative despite its being penned after its songs. It's very easy for a musical structured around pre-written material to have an unnatural and forced sense of plotting (cough, Across the Universe, cough). But then Honoré didn't exactly work the script around the tunes; he kind of meshed an already-thought-up story with the already-recorded songs, some of which he adapted and others of which he simply dropped in. Ultimately, though, and somewhat ironically, it's the strength of the film's story that left me so frustrated with Love Songs. Because it makes me wish even more that the songs weren't there to break up the intensity of the drama.