Musicals have always been synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood and, more recently, the kitsch melodrama of Bollywood. Chansons D’Amour is a French take on the genre, with director Christophe Honor attempting to marry the musical with its polar opposite of neo-realism. The results are, at best, questionable, but Honor’s offering does go beyond spectacle, delving further into sexual politics than most simple dramas would dare.
Les Chansons D’Amour is a kinetic story about love, lust and all the bridges in-between, narrated in three chapters entitled Departure, Absence and Return. Honor enlists Louis Garrel for the third time, casting him as Ismal, a journalist involved in a threesome between his girlfriend Julie and his bohemian co-worker Alice. Both Ismal and Julie appear fulfilled and yet threatened by the arrangement, until Julie suffers a sudden heart attack and dies. Ismal is left mourning, and, neither able to love or receive comfort from the self-centred Alice, he finds himself in a tender homosexual encounter with young student Erwann, to the scorn of those around him.
The threesome of Alice, Julie and Ismal is carefully considered, and the scripting of the complex politics of the situation is superbly understated. Honor puts female pleasure at the centre of the arrangement, an almost feminist move that plays against common stereotype, but as the film plays out, Honor, a homosexual himself, gradually turns his support and attention away from the female element.
By the end of the second chapter, Ismal has “departed” from an exclusively heterosexual way of life, and this “absence” is a welcome one. His relationship with Erwann, played with a vulnerable sensitivity by Gregoire Ringuet, is far more erotic than the one he had with Julie. It is implicitly more fulfilling, as he needs no other party to satisfy him.
As the women around Ismal grow more needy and selfish, their continual interference into his life is articulated by their awkward presence in scenes that should not concern them, such as when Ismal awakes from a one-night stand with a waitress. Their presence turns all Ismal’s interactions into subverted threesomes, throwing into question the practicality of relationships in general.
Then there are the songs: nothing more than an unfortunate distraction from the intricate story. Generic and with little or no distinction in terms of character or mood, they are performed with Bollywood-style melodrama, devoid of emotional legitimacy. Ironically, Honor claims that the songs, penned by Alex Beaupain, were the inspiration and driving force of the film, but there is little evidence of this from the clichd lyrics.
Les Chansons D’Amour is somewhat of a question mark. As a musical it is rather disappointing, and perhaps it is time for Honor and the self-indulgent Garrel to part ways. That aside, it is a thought-provoking film with some intelligent innovations.