Wednesday, March 02, 2011

French Rendezvous ’11: What Love May Bring

It was the signature song of Ethel Waters, first immortalized on the big screen by Lena Horne in the 1943 film of the same name. “Stormy Weather” will also play a pivotal role in the lives of a scandalous Italian immigrant, her French stepfather, an African-American boxer, and a German nightclub impresario, all of whom dance to the Harold Arlen standard just before WWII turns their lives upside-down in Claude Lelouch’s triumphant What Love May Bring (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Though largely set during the Second World War, Love starts decades before as a highly stylized silent film. This is the backstory of Simon, a piano-playing lawyer, whose father was killed while shooting early motion picture footage of the first great World War. As a young man, he is torn between studying law and music. Tragically, his horrific years spent in a concentration camp playing for his National Socialist captors will understandably tip the scales in favor of law school. However, he still enjoys jamming in a jazz club when not defending clients like Ilva Lemoine Singer. She needs the help. Evidently, she loved too easily, or so her testimony suggests in flashback form.

The step-daughter of a projectionist active in the underground, Lemoine somewhat disappointed the old man when she became the mistress of a high-ranking German officer. When that did not work out, she found protection with two American soldiers, the rich white Jim Singer and the aforementioned boxer. Though ostensibly friendly, their love triangle took a rather unfortunate turn that indirectly led to her later legal problems. Confused yet? Well, it hardly matters. Much of the joy of Love derives from the big messy sprawl of it all.

Part sweeping historical and part WWII memory play, Love is in many ways Lelouch’s deliberate career summation. It is not by chance that Lemoine’s stepfather operates a cinema or that they are sheltering a future filmmaker played at various ages by two of Lelouch’s sons. He even includes an Oscar-style highlight reel of his previous films in Love’s denouement, which is probably as indulgent as it sounds, but fits the spirit of the moment better than one might expect.

Indeed, Love is an expansive canvas. Lelouch dazzles with his frequent shifts in time and perspective, even staging a D-Day invasion that might not be up to the technical level of Saving Private Ryan, but conveys the chaos of war quite effectively. If not a jazz film per se, Love is also notable for its use of the music in several different dramatic contexts.

An accomplished jazz musician and musical theater performer, Laurent Couson gives a knockout performance, musically and dramatically, as the lawyer-pianist. A talented musician and composer, Couson also contributes some classy but swinging jazz themes, which nicely complement the moody underscore by longtime Lelouch stalwart Francis Lai (of A Man and a Woman fame). While Couson is a genuine revelation, Love is littered with richly intriguing and nuanced supporting performances, including Micmacs’ Dominique Pinon as the projectionist-stepfather. However, as Lemoine-Singer, Audrey Dana is not the most convincing femme fatale, coming up a bit short with the noir allure.

Forthrightly depicting WWII-era collaboration and more romantic forms of betrayal set to an evocative jazz-influenced score, Love would be a quintessentially French film but for the grand ambition of its scope. A wildly entertaining masterwork that will have to be addressed in any future consideration of Lelouch’s oeuvre, Love is a can’t miss highlight of this year’s French Rendezvous. Enthusiastically recommended, it screens Saturday (3/5) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/6) at the IFC Center.