Les chansons d’amour. You don’t need to have been studying French for too long to understand these basic tenets of the language. And you’re probably aware that a French film called Love Songs is going to be a very particular sort of film in a musical tradition that saw its peak with the piquant emotionality of 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. While Les chansons d'amour takes place in a distinctly more modern world, the influence of Jacques Demy’s films is obvious in director Christophe Honoré’s impulsive, mobile camera and the actors’ playful singing games on the streets of Paris.
Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) walks around a corner and is surprised by Ismael (Louis Garrel) – and immediately the music strikes up and you find the film you’re watching has that impetuous French spryness. The lyrics – at least as translated into English subtitles – are not trite so much as completely ordinary, everyday conversation put to Alex Beaupain’s soft acoustic music. It’s alive with the bright spirit of love, whether Ismael’s tangled, hormonal love triangle with Julie and Alice (Clotilde Hesme), or Ismael’s later, more tender and dramatic involvement with Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet).
Ismael moves around on his office chair with an adolescent impulsiveness, and the camera almost reverberates with the excitement of his movement and playful abandon. Garrel had already become somewhat of an international arthouse sex symbol with his role in ménage-a-trois drama The Dreamers a few years before Les chansons d'amour’ release, his towering mess of raven hair and square features a particularly French type of erotic. Here, he teams up with Ludivine Sagnier – also introduced as an emblem of French sexual openness back in 2003 through Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool – as a couple engaging in a peculiar threesome.
Honoré coyly reveals the love triangle by cutting to Julie and Alice changing into their night-clothes at once, Ismael quietly waiting in their bed. Alice insists she’s into ‘non-sex’ – she and Julie play around in bed and Ismael sullenly gets out his book. But each pairing is constantly interrupted by another – as Alice tends to Julie under the covers, Ismael starts a discussion with Julie about whether she loves him. It’s a typically adolescent mess of horniness and romanticism, hanging over into their freer adulthood. They discuss it openly with Julie’s parents – her mother (Brigitte Roüan) shows a deep curiosity for how they make it work – but it’s perpetually a situation that feels on the verge of collapse.
Collapse it does, but not as expected – Julie’s unexpected death ages Ismael by several years as he struggles to copy both physically and mentally with her absence, haunted both by sympathetic family members and the ghost of Julie herself. The film becomes tinged by ghostly blue colours and the winsome acoustic guitar becomes secondary to the more melancholic piano. But in its approach towards death, Les chansons d'amour shows a remarkable honesty and openness, not dwelling in depression for its own sake but showing how Ismael’s relationships – a lingering attachment to Alice, Julie’s sister Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni) clinging to her fellow griever, the blossoming attraction to Erwann – complicate his mourning process. It neither dismisses nor glorifies grief, and feels refreshing for it.
‘You’re the first guy to sleep in my bed,’ smiles Erwann, having woken Ismael with a creepy snap of his cameraphone. In most circumstances, Erwann’s behaviour might well come across as uncomfortably intense (and indeed, Honoré realises this by creating a point-of-view shot that watches Ismael around a corner), but Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet is so tousle-haired and sweet that his obsession seems not only adorable but honourable – a keen attempt to pull Ismael out of his grief. ‘You don’t need anyone?’ he asks, coolly, on being rebuffed.
On a shallower level, the boys’ ultimate consummation of their attraction is just plain hot. Erwann’s advances are made in large part through song, a form where his intensity and romanticism makes sense as such a direct address, and you can see Ismael’s emotions shifting through the simple emotional content of their duets. Their sex scene, done to the tune of rockier ‘La memoire sale’, is a tender and physical bundle of emotion and longing, caresses and stares more erotic that anything explicit could be. The memory of Julie is tied up in this new relationship, and the lyrics reveal, admit and embrace that – new love rising from the ashes of a broken heart. When Ismael’s singing pauses for the two to kiss, it feels like part of the melody. Eventually, his singing floats onto the soundtrack as they continue to kiss. It’s very sexy, but it also resonates more deeply because of the build up to it and the mixture of emotions involved.
Les chansons d'amour is doubtless a film that is an acquired taste – musicals in themselves often are, but neither does this have anything like the flamboyance and exuberance that the genre tends to have. The songs are gentle, simple and affecting. The fluidity of sexuality and emotion is very typically French. But if it sounds like your sort of thing, you’re almost guaranteed to swoon hard. Je t’adore.
Love Songs is available to purchase from Amazon.