Thursday, March 20, 2008

Love Songs

It’s a simple title, but Love Songs carries a good measure of irony. Featuring the songs—some original, some rewritten specifically for the film—by French pop-rock composer Alex Beaupain, director Christophe Honoré’s decidedly European movie musical is a frank examination of troubled relationships, opening in New York tomorrow (trailer here).

A Parisian couple, Ismaël and Julie, have opened up their relationship into a threesome with his coworker Alice, which (no surprise) leads to great stress between them. (Evidently Dr. Drew is not heard in Paris.) Musical numbers do indeed accompany scenes of Ismaël and Julie’s disintegrating union, performed convincingly by a cast with little prior musical background, much like the cast of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd.

If things were not dark enough, tragedy strikes in the second act. At the risk of being a spoiler, let’s just say the threesome has no future. What follows is truly an adult musical, involving bereavement, survivor guilt, sex, and an unexpected homosexual relationship, again all expressed in song.

Love Songs is an adult film in the sophisticated sense of the term. The scenes involving the threesome are not played for pruriency. Instead, they focus on the awkward logistical details. As a result, it is painfully clear throughout that this arrangement will only cause further pain and resentment between the original couple.

Beaupain’s score has a decidedly downbeat vibe that is understandable given the nature of the story. At their best, his songs have a catchy melody and uncomfortably pointed lyrics. A tune like “Je N’Aime Que Toi” makes Company sound like a bubblegum romance. Many of the arrangements were shrewdly tailored to the performers, like “Si Tard,” a beyond the grave lament given an almost speak-on-pitch treatment. Collectively though, the uniformity of theme and mood often blurs the distinction between many of the tunes.

The characters of Love Songs are most certainly human, but not particularly likeable. Clotilde Hesme’s Alice comes across as the smartest and perhaps the healthiest. Conversely, Louis Garrel’s Ismaël appears immature and frankly annoying. That his personal relationships could be troubled is more than believable. Ludivne Sagnier as the reserved Julie probably gets the most memorable song and acquits herself well.

There is no question Honoré is an able director. He deftly stages the musical numbers and uses contemporary Paris as an effective backdrop to the story. While tremendous talent went into Love Songs, its difficult characters and their painful decisions are hard to embrace. Ultimately, it is a great sounding, great looking musical, with a cold heart. It opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Film Center.