Directed by Christophe Honoré (Dans Paris)
Starring Louis Garrel (The Dreamers), Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool, Girl Cut in Two), Chiara Mastroianni (Paris, Je t'aime)
A French musical that transcends love, gender and death set to sparkling indie pop. Nouvelle-Vague Cinema has never been this enchanting.
When a fashionable threesome breaks into a song under the streetlights and puddled alleys of Paris, magic happens. If The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the inspiration then Les Chansons d'amour is the celebration, casual in its grace and involving in its meditative melancholy.
Ismaël Bénoliel, played by the effervescent Louis Garrel, contemplates love, loss and the possibility of happiness in three acts. "The Departure" shows the youthful trio of Ismaël, his girlfriend Julie (the always stunning Sagnier) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme) in bed and down the streets, ecstatic yet harboring insecurities with and within the simmering complications of their relationship. Tragedy strikes without warning, in the middle of a smoky love song, leading to "The Absence," where Ismaël grieves and unexpectedly finds solace in Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringue), a young university student who smells like the sea.
Even if it is a musical, there is nothing theatrical about Les Chansons d'amour. Christophe Honoré shifts from understated to crisp realism to surreal structures seamlessly; his nod to the French New Wave of the 60s and to the unique devices of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy among others have infused the film with a strangely dreamy riff, fantastic and achingly corporeal at the same time. The characters break into song when reality is too much; the angst resurface when the singing gets too dreamy. This push and pull keeps the pacing fast, and along with Honoré's succinct writing, Les Chansons d'amour is that rare French romantic drama that doesn't leave space for atmospheric silence.
In the third act, "The Return," the agony and the ecstasy of the singing take center stage. In what could be the best balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet, Ismaël finally gives in to the possibility of love even if it meant a second death to the relationship that tragically ended. Louis Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringue have an endearing chemistry that is authentically eager and comforting. With Honoré's precise direction, the blossoming homosexual relationship is refreshingly low-key even if it is controversial in nature considering Erwann's adolescence. Les Chansons d'amour ends with Leprince-Ringue's character, breathless from a kiss, pleading: Love me less but love me a long time. Beautiful, non?
Even with the moral gravity of themes, Les Chansons d'amour is uncompromisingly romantic with love songs silly, needy, hesitant, and wider than a mile, sung in the most romantic city on Earth. What more could you ask for?
Les Chansons d'amour trailer: