'Love Songs': Paris on a Dark, Plaintive Note

The French musical "Love Songs," starring, from left, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme and Louis Garrel, is peculiar yet thought-provoking.
The French musical "Love Songs," starring, from left, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme and Louis Garrel, is peculiar yet thought-provoking. (Ifc Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008

At the risk of turning a movie review into an SAT quiz, we ask you to choose the one category that doesn't seem to apply.

Bursting into song is welcome and appropriate in the following situations . . .

1) The shower

2) Church

3) Musicals

4) Depressing French movies

Until we saw "Love Songs," we would have gone for No. 4, too. But we were thrown -- and pleasantly so -- by the film's audacious bending of the unspoken (or unsung) "rules" of the form. We certainly don't expect serious characters to air their thoughts and feelings to Gallic lite rock. But there they are, young, French and beautiful, singing their way through the weightier matters of love and death.

Certainly, others have pushed the boundaries of the genre. The characters in Jacques Demy's 1964 "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" sang all their dialogue, instead of waiting for the big choreographed numbers. So did the beings of Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," more than 30 years later. Lars von Trier's 2000 "Dancer in the Dark" put a Brechtian twist into the form as Bjork sang darkly themed songs in factories. And some may remember Steven Bochco's short-lived TV series "Cop Rock," which tried to combine the police drama with the musical.

But "Love Songs," which follows the impulse-driven shenanigans of three lovers in contemporary Paris, has its own, peculiar quality. The characters (including Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier and Clotilde Hesme) sing as casually as they speak, without a trace of irony or self-consciousness. There's no sense of camp at all, even as they variously sing, smoke or climb into bed with whatever gender happens to be in front of them.

Yes, it's weird. But it's wild-card weird, with that thrill of never knowing what's coming next or when these Parisians are going to get musical on us. From the story's early dark turn, we realize that the strange is commonplace. And even if we're not particularly touched by the drama that unfolds, we're drawn to the way these almost-saccharine songs make us contemplate their deeper subjects, including sexual jealousy, postmortem grief and abject loneliness.

Written and directed by Christophe Honoré, "Love Songs" is also a homage to the "new wave" films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut in the 1960s. Those early movies, which often paid tribute to Paris, were cinema's first attempts to probe the political and romantic impulses of the 20-something generation. So this imaginative updating, with Paris serving again as a visual motif, is not only appropriate, it's an art-house-goer's special pleasure. Cinéastes can listen, too, for a passing Steven Spielberg reference, when Ismaël briefly whistles the musical theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the 1977 movie that featured Truffaut. In this world, it seems, everything comes around.

Love Songs (100 minutes, in French with subtitles, at the AFI Silver) is not rated but contains sexual scenes, nudity and profanity.

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