As in last year's "Dans Paris," 37-year-old filmmaker Christophe Honore ventures back to that lost Eden known as the French New Wave, this time to punch up a featherweight tale of young love and loss with high-concept tomfoolery. And though "Love Songs" (or, if we could please use its original, more melodic title, "Les Chansons d'amour") better evokes that era's carefree cinematic spirit, it's similarly bound by dictates and referents, twice-removed and over-rehearsed. Hence "Love Songs" is not merely a musical -- in which passionate, lost twentysomethings wend their way through difficult times by breaking into pop tunes with puppy-love ingenuousness -- but also a riff on musicals, performance, play-acting, etc. Part of this is just by postmodern design, yet often the result is simultaneously ingratiating and distancing. Those looking for the exhilarating crescendos of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (the film's declared inspiration: Honore borrows Jacques Demy's structure, separating his narrative into the same three distinct chapters -- Departure, Absence, and Return) might be put off by the film's less dramatic swooniness; "Love Songs" is the brief dalliance to "Cherbourg"'s intense affair, perhaps too shy to fully take the plunge, but nimble enough to give off a flirtatious buzz.
"Dans Paris" winked and nudged itself to the edge of oblivion, while "Love Songs" merely wants to smile and shrug its way into your heart. Thanks to a magnetic cast of up-and-coming certified French hotties frolicking through a roundelay of appealing polysexual pleasures, it almost gets there. Louis Garrel plays magazine editor Ismael with a sly, self-aware Belmondo twinkle in his eye, whistling and goofing through a tenuous three-way relationship with Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, putting her pixie past behind her and growing more formidable with each passing film) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme, striking an audacious, animated opposition to her lovely, detached Lilie from "Regular Lovers"), until unforeseen tragedy befalls them. This event radiates throughout their lives, affecting Ismael in thoroughly unexpected and ultimately disarming ways, most of them better left for the viewer to uncover. If the third act of "Love Songs" isn't quite as emotionally (or physically) plausible as the narrative requires, at least Honore has clearly psychologically worked out his conclusion, leaving his characters on a precariously lovely edge.
To keep afloat all this catchy, erudite gossamer, Honore employs previously written pop tunes by composer/performer Alex Beaupain; if they're far from the traditional "chansons" of Jacques Brel or Piaf, they evoke sixties French standards with their distinct lyrical playfulness and tinny delicacy. Yet for all Beaupain's minor musical charms, this is where the film's insistent comparisons to Demy leave something of a gaping wound; "Love Songs" would undoubtedly have benefited from Michel Legrand's operatic schematics, in which melodies overlap, repeat, and echo to create a dynamic interior space for the characters, as well as a consistent artistic framework on which to hang vaporous themes of love vs. romanticism. Beaupain's songs are dispersed throughout, mere ephemera, drifting away as soon as you grasp them (the obnoxious subtitles, which of course try to impose rhyming English verse onto the original French lyrics, don't help); the result doesn't feel wholly unified, even if, it can be handily argued, it speaks well to the characters' less than shrewd grip on their emotional and sexual identities.
If "Love Songs" fundamentally lacks musical grandeur, the same could be said for spectacle. There's no genre that as explicitly invites expressionistic flourish as the musical, yet Honore often just films his actors, even at their most lovelorn, desperate, or tunefully giddy, in flat midshots and cramped frames; there's an especially dully blocked moment in which characters sing to each other through their cell phones that's decidedly less clever than the filmmaker evidently thinks it is, and I'm truly sick of girls sassily sashaying away from pleading pursuing boys as standing in for viable choreography. "Love Songs" often just isn't visually enticing, relying too much on well-appointed scarves and metropolitan cityscapes (as a friend mentioned, it looks like a Gap ad).
Honore's better at plucking moments out of time (there's a splendid cut from a shot of a bartender pouring a drink to her coming out of Ismael's bathroom in panties and T-shirt) than at sustaining narrative momentum, which can leave some of his terrific supporting players stranded (Chiara Mastroianni, magnetically melancholy as Julie's sister, and Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, adorable as a cocksure schoolboy crushing on Ismael, are often shoved to the peripheries, so their crucial character arcs don't always shine through). As an implicit longing for a cinema of white, Parisian, middle-class intellectuals, "Love Songs" often feels like a rusty trinket; that it hasn't yet completely lost its luster is thanks in no small part to its vibrant portraitures, steeped in the heartsick pangs of young love.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]