Christophe Honoré is wondering if there’s an English word for “older than old.” The French director (Ma Mère, Dans Paris) is trying to describe the audience for the previous day’s Walter Reade screening of Love Songs, a musical set in Paris starring Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier. The aged cohort’s reaction was—typically, Honoré implied—not what he’d hoped, and while the appeal of a film about a youthful love triangle and its tragic fallout is hardly limited, Honoré’s sensibility is distinctively à la mode, even as it reaches back to pluck a curve or two from the French New Wave. Garrel arrived about halfway through my morning interview with the director, a cold and perhaps the after-effects of a last night in New York hanging heavy on his brow.
There’s singing in Love Songs but no dancing, although the camera occasionally functions as a sort of dance partner.
HONORÉ: I think that’s why the movie is not what you would expect—it’s less a musical comedy than a film with song. I would have loved to incorporate dance, but that would have made the film more expensive and might have detracted from the intimate and personal quality that we were seeking.
Directors like Wes and P.T. Anderson have talked about growing a film from the seed that a song provides, essentially beginning with the soundtrack.
HONORÉ: Well, Wes Anderson is definitely my favorite American filmmaker right now. It’s never been exactly that my films started with a song, but there was always a song that sort of summarized the film succinctly.
And what was it about Alex Beaupain’s music or these particular songs that inspired this film?
HONORÉ: Alex and I have a long-term friendship, and his songs touch me particularly because I recognize a lot of elements from my own life in them. Starting from his songs does several things—it creates a certain Romanesque distance for me in the work, and also allows me to talk about myself while going through him.
[Addressing GARREL:] Another critic has referred to the film as A Man Is a Man, a play on Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman.
HONORÉ: Wait—someone said this? That’s very strange, because the Godard film is one [of my favorites], and I hesitated for a few days—I nearly called this movie A Man Is a Man! Louis really tried to convince me not to. He said, “People will say you are a disciple of Godard and stop with all the Nouvelle Vague stuff, blah, blah, blah.”
But you couldn’t have been too concerned about that if you considered the title in the first place—you make the connections pretty clear.
HONORÉ: Yes, you know A Woman Is a Woman was shot in the same neighborhood in Paris as we shot, and at the beginning of that film, Anna Karina walks in the same street that Ludivine Sagnier walks down. There are things like that.
And Louis? How did you feel about your character as a sort of archetype—he seems plagued by indecision.
GARREL: Actually, Ismaël is not at all confused, although he’s very capricious. In A Woman Is a Woman, the leading character is capricious as well. But in the beginning, Ismaël knows exactly what he wants: He wants two women in his bed. And then things change [because of a death], and that alters the course he is on. I hear a lot about how Ismaël is not likable, and I have to ask myself why.
I wouldn’t say he’s unlikable, necessarily, but he does frustrate most of the people around him. Which is not the same thing, I suppose.
[Both men laugh.]
Did you and Beaupain compromise on a happy, tonal medium to make the transition between song and dialogue a smooth one?
HONORÉ: I’m quite wary of screenplays that put things on a grid, but I did work a lot on this film with the nature of the dialogue. Alex has a poetic register, so although the film is very realistic, the language is fairly literary. The only words in a song that I feel responsible for—because Alex is extremely ashamed of them—is the line when [boyish lover] Erwann says, “I am young, beautiful, and from Brittany, and I smell like lemon crêpes.”
That’s all you?
HONORÉ: Yes! I admit it.
The last line of the film is beautiful but very sad—”Love me less, but love me for a long time.”
HONORÉ: It’s Louis who found this sentence, in a book about Jewish thought, when we were conceiving the film. We both thought there was something essential there, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had Louis record that line, and during the editing process it went from scene to scene until it ended up where it is now. It was important to me not to have a happy ending—I have them kissing, but they’re on a ledge. And Ismaël has the foresight to see that the boy who loves him is 17, and at 17 you could be madly in love, but only for a week.