I‚(TM)m a sucker for musicals, a sucker for love stories, a sucker for a good, quirky French film. So imagine my excitement when I came across a synopsis of auteur-director Christopher Honor√ (C)‚(TM)s Les Chansons D‚(TM)Amour in the listings of the local French cinema club. It sounded like a delightful blend of everything I could ask for in a film ‚" a story about difficult relationships (a m√ (C)nage √† trois lies at the heart of Chansons), told through music and melody, unfolding in the cobblestoned streets of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Rather than being a cookie-cutter musical-by-numbers rolling off the Hollywood production line, stuffed with the latest pop tunes, Chansons would surely bear the mark of the offbeat rhythms and far more liberal social mores of its French heritage. Sadly, Chansons never quite scales the heights I hoped it would.
Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and Isma√ęl (Louis Garrel) are a couple who are in love‚¶ but also happen to have fallen into a three-sided relationship with Alice (Clotilde Hesme). Jealousies and insecurities and flirting abound amongst the threesome until ‚" quite suddenly ‚" life takes a turn for the dark and tragic. Everyone who has known and loved Julie and Isma√ęl struggle to cope with the wrenching change, and Honor√ (C)‚(TM)s camera dutifully trails after them as they piece together their hearts and lives again around the people who have left and the ones who have turned up unexpectedly‚¶ like the chirpy blonde Breton, Erwann (Gr√ (C)goire Leprince-Ringuet).
Honor√ (C) had hoped to create with Chansons a film in which music and song served as the outlet for characters to express their innermost feelings ‚" not quite the way joy bubbled up exuberantly into tap-happy, lavish production numbers as in the old-school MGM musical, but as an expression of everything, from loneliness to guilt, desire to anguish. Great concept, in theory ‚" and really the main reason I wanted to see Chansons for myself.
The concept, unfortunately, is more than a little befuddled in execution. There is a huge wealth of complexity and depth folded into the film‚(TM)s narrative ‚" Julie‚(TM)s family and their reactions to her unusual relationship with Isma√ęl and Alice are particularly ripe with dramatic potential ‚" but the songs, when they turn up, seem to detract from rather than add to the proceedings. Alex Beaupain‚(TM)s tunes are nice enough, but for the most part, the lyrics seem either tangential to what‚(TM)s going on, or not quite right for the setting in which they‚(TM)re being sung. Instead of clarifying the emotions of the character singing them (as was supposedly the intention of the film-maker), the songs come across as obtuse: when Julie and Isma√ęl flirt and snap and quarrel with each other throughout Des Bonnes Raisons and Inventaire, it doesn‚(TM)t help the audience understand why they‚(TM)re in a relationship with Alice ‚" or even with each other, in the first place. In fact, the film feels like it could have subsisted quite happily ‚" and less confusedly ‚" with the excision of some of the musical numbers.
That‚(TM)s not to say that all the songs feel curiously detached from the ongoing narrative. Some of them do work and are well-placed within the film ‚" when Isma√ęl broods about how life can change so quickly and horrifically in Delta Charlie Delta, for instance, or when his guilt takes centre stage in Ma M√ (C)moire Sale. That being said, I‚(TM)m as big a fan there is of people breaking into song at any and all opportune moments, but I still felt that there was plenty enough story and character to go around without need for Beaupain‚(TM)s soundtrack attempting to underscore the emotions of the characters. It‚(TM)s Julie‚(TM)s quiet despair in a kitchen conversation with her mother about Isma√ęl and Alice, for instance, that tells more about her insecurities and concerns than her sing-song flirty argument with them in Je N‚(TM)aime Que Toi. In the end, sadly, the depth and complexity that deserved to be explored gets forgotten in favour of a concept that doesn‚(TM)t do the characters or the plot justice. The grief in the film feels curiously stilted, bottled up and hidden away even when it‚(TM)s supposedly right there onscreen, being sung about in graveyards or in parks.
Perhaps I was expecting too much from Honor√ (C)‚(TM)s little experiment. It‚(TM)s not that the film was a wretched piece of garbage; it wasn‚(TM)t. The cast really was great, all things considered, despite the fact that they aren‚(TM)t really particularly good singers. Chiara Mastroianni as Julie‚(TM)s sister Jeanne deserves a mention for her attempts to ground her grief within the movie in a performance that really resonates with the audience, and Garrel is as charming as you might hope in a role that can‚(TM)t ever really be pinned down. My frustration is that there were hints of what the movie could have been, in its concept and in its execution: something a lot deeper and darker, a lot richer and smarter, with music that told rather than slowed the story unfolding onscreen.