Managing a menage: In 'Love Songs,' sexuality is sentimental and fluid. (Photo courtesy IFC)

Review: 'Love Songs'

Dennis Harvey June 3, 2008

French musicals are an acquired taste. I should know, because I thought I hated ‘em until I suddenly acquired it. The moment of revelation is cloudy, but may have been tethered to first hearing the Michel Legrand song score for 1968’s Young Girls of Rochefort—music so cheerful, insouciant, wistful, and catchy it could charm the distemper from Guantanamo Bay. (It took several more years to actually see that film, which outside France was a big flop, only recently getting belated appreciation and restored-print DVD exposure.)

As defined by the original taste-making blueprint, Demy’s 1964 Umbrellas of Cherbourg (also with a Legrand score, one more famous but I think less intoxicating), the French musical is not at all like your classic Hollywood model—or even the Bollywood one. Songs simply seep into the "action," simply extending the inevitable discussion of relationships or their lack rather than providing plot with some flamboyant interruption. People don’t "burst" into song, they slip into it. The music is usually less Broadway than youthful pop, movement not half so formal as would require the term "choreography."

What’s not to like? Well, at its worst the French movie musical can be insufferably twee, navel-gazing, Eurotrashy, banal. Actually, it can risk all that even at its best. But as a convert, my applicable cynicism has been de-boned.

Demy is long gone, but the French musical lives on, some memorable semi-recent examples being 1998’s lovely Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, 2005 delight Cote d’Azur (by the same co-directors and composer), veteran Alain Renais’ Same Old Song (1997), and Francois Ozon’s starry 2002 8 Women. Even WW1 saga La France, which surfaced just last month in Bay Area theatres, found room for surprising turns of dialogue into melody.

Now there’s Christophe Honore’s almost-too-pettable Love Songs (aka Les Chansons d’amour), in which a blithe Parisian menage-a-trois turns tragic when one side in the triangle suffers an abrupt, extreme health emergency. Ismael (Louis Garrel, whose puppy dog cuteness will strike viewers as variably adorable and insufferable) is involved with both Alice (Clotilde Hesme) and Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). Ditto they with each other, in a somewhat unresolved bisexual trifecta. That fragile domesticity ended, our antic yet grieving hero moves on to new horizons, including smitten gay boy Erwann (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). As sister to the felled lover, Chiara Mastroianni completes the wispy-voiced, ruminative, dreamily-drifty narrative picture.

Needless to say, sexuality is fluid here, not to mention sentimental—as opposed to purely lust-driven. Commitments cross the full Kinsey-scale map yet are primarily emotional rather than physical. There’s virtually no graphic nudity or even grindy pantomime in Love Songs, whose most tender song/scene is a beautifully discreet coupling between Ismael and Erwann.

Its conversational song structures and lovely chamber-pop arrangements (both by Alex Beaupain) building toward a truly joyous rapproachment, Love Songs ends up a truly gay musical utterly devoid of camp. Jacques Demy might be a trifle shocked, but he would still be proud.