If the great movie musicals of yesteryear put a song in your heart, Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth. How else to describe Honoré’s orally fixated post-postmodern operetta, whose libretto includes lyrics like “Keep your saliva as an antidote/Let it trickle like sweet venom down my throat”? Those bon mots are sung by Alice (Clotilde Hesme), a sprightly Parisian newspaper worker, to her colleague and sometimes bedmate Ismaël (Louis Garrel), shortly after the third member of their ménage-à-trois, Ismaël’s girlfriend Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), drops dead of a blood clot outside the famed Les Étoiles nightclub. The dirt on Julie’s grave has barely settled when Alice drifts into the arms of yet another lover, Gwendal (Yannick Renier), while Ismaël beds down with Gwendal’s teenage brother, Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). “But a true love that lasts leaves lovers exhausted/And their overripe kisses rot on our tongues,” beckons the barely legal stripling as he woos the ostensibly hetero Ismaël. Talk about your romance languages!
Lerner and Lowe this isn’t. Or Comden and Green. But we’re not too far away from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 bed-hopping meta-musical, A Woman Is a Woman, which followed an impulsive young stripper (played by Anna Karina) as she twirled two men around her little finger—her commitment-phobic boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) and a potential surrogate father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) for her yet-to-be-conceived baby. In a review of The Pajama Game, written for the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard had declared the movie musical to be, “in a way, the idealization of cinema.” And Woman, with its throwaway choreography and orchestra that swells in anticipation of nonexistent songs, was Godard’s doffing of his beret at those splashy Hollywood tunefests whose self-reflexive storylines and frequent narrative interruptions fit with his own sense of movies as an ongoing critique of themselves.
In the process, Godard effectively launched a distinctly French subgenre of minimalist song-and-dance anti-spectaculars that would come to include work by Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Chantal Akerman (Window Shopping), and Jacques Rivette (Up/Down/Fragile). Even Honoré, who also began his career as a Cahiers contributor, is no stranger at this table, having placed impromptu musical numbers at the end of two previous films—his 2002 debut feature 17 Times Cécile Cassard (itself a riff on Demy’s 1961 demi-musical Lola) and the recent Dans Paris, whose climax had two estranged spouses patching things up by serenading one another over the telephone.
Love Songs, however, is Honoré’s first full-tilt genre outing, and while his earlier films were hardly devoid of their own show-offy cinephilia (Dans Paris aped Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films in the way Love Songs apes Godard), this one has been stripped of everything but its pastiche; it’s as if Pulp Fiction had wandered into Jack Rabbit Slim’s and never left. Perhaps the 37-year-old filmmaker has been paying a little too much attention to his own reviews. Although, in America, he’s barely a blip on the radar for most moviegoers and critics, in France, Honoré has been built up by a coterie of influential film critics into a nearly messianic figure—the Second Coming of the Nouvelle Vague. That was already apparent in 2006, when the Cannes Film Festival was roundly criticized in the local press for failing to include Dans Paris in the Official Selection (it ended up at the rival Directors Fortnight instead), all but guaranteeing that Love Songs would be offered a Cannes competition slot in 2007. It was, where it met with rapturous paeans from the Honoré faithful (including the major French-film magazines Studio, Telerama, and Les Inrockuptibles) and head-scratching from just about everyone else.
Honoré is not without talent, but Love Songs adds up to considerably less than the sum of its references. What the director seems to have forgotten is that even the original New Wave movies he’s so taken to heart were themselves more than collections of moods, poses, and literary/cinematic quotations; they were creating a new cinematic language by deconstructing the old one, and they often managed to involve us in the lives of their characters, despite their au courant penchant for Brechtian distancing effects.
Here, though, we’re left with little more than a pile of celluloid naval lint. The actors—especially Garrel, who has now done his preening, neo–Jean-Pierre Léaud routine at least one too many times for anyone’s good—wink and nod at the audience when they’re not sulking about in cooler-than-thou ennui, nulling any investment we might feel in their assorted couplings and triplings. In what may be the ultimate film-buff circle-jerk, a lyric from another of Love Songs‘ distinctly annoying ditties pays homage to Martin Scorsese’s own quotation-heavy 1977 musical New York, New York, the sort of critical and commercial Waterloo the French like to call un film maudit. That Honoré knows a lot about movies is beyond question—but from first frame to last, Love Songs stays as icy to the touch as Julie’s premature corpse.