Les chansons d'amour
The Intimacy of Incompetence
The French musical usually contains a greater degree of melancholy, even tragedy, than the American equivalent if we compare The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, On Connait la Chanson, Jeanne et le garcon formidable and Les Chansons d'amour to Funny Face, Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris and Brigadoon. Of course, there have been bleak and grave American musicals, A Star is Born and West Side Story, but the American musical is usually enthusiastic and public; the French wistful and private. Watching the first part of Christophe Honore's Les chansons d'amour we may be awaiting a tragedy because we know the conventions of the French musical, or because while watching it we cannot accept that the film will continue in such a light vein with so little of consequence happening. We find out at the beginning of the film that Julie (Ludovine Sagnier) is fed up with her boyfriend Ismael (Louis Garrel), annoyed that she spends so much time going to the cinema alone while he works long hours as a journalist on an independent, small paper, but when we also suspect he could be working such long hours because he seems to like the company of his co-worker Alice (Clothilde Hesme), the film undercuts the narrative force of such an assumption by making it clear a couple of scenes later that they are in a burgeoning threesome. Julie might be less than a hundred per cent happy with this arrangement, but it appears a source of irritation rather than sorrow: the biggest problem with a three in bed is that Paris may seem a city conducive to such liberal arrangements, but is at a loss when it comes to the practical configurations of such a deal. The apartment is cramped and the bed is just too small.
This suggests interestingly that a plot development is only as good as the characterisational reaction to it. If Julie had been horrified by this new situation, if she couldn't countenance her partner sleeping with another woman, then we would have a major shift in the story. But though the film follows a three-act structure as Honore divides it into three parts (the departure; the absence and the return), the film has little in common with movies that are so neatly divided off and which usually rely on strong causality. Honore seeks weak causality within a formal precision, evident most obviously in the scene which does transform the story. A third of the way through the film Julie, Ismael and Alice are in a nightclub listening to the music of the film's composer Alex Beaupain when Julie disappears into the toilets and then out on to the street, collapsing on the pavement. The police arrive, Julie is pronounced dead and it isn't so much that the film has developed; it has instead been debilitated, weakened by the absence of what has up until this point been one of our two central characters. This is not at all new and not even especially French: from Psycho to The Place Beyond the Pines, a number of films have risked taking out their leading character to generate not so much a plot twist as a narrative crisis: one that asks us somehow to start watching the film all over again. This isn't at all true of every death in film, or even quite important ones. A secondary villain can die quite early in a film or quite late. It isn't that important. Even a good buddy can die long before the final act and often motivates third act behaviour, as we see in the need for revenge in Top Gun, Speed and to some degree Basic Instinct. Loved ones can die too, whether early in the film as we find in the Bourne Supremacy or late in the film, evident in Mad Max. But these are all losses the story can easily sustain, however diegetically moved we may or may not be by the loss. Partly why Psycho remains so important a film rests on its willingness to risk undermining its own diegesis, in the hope that it would create both an enormous shock and also show that a filmmaker can retain an audience's interest without any longer following the character who was holding so much interest for us until that point. But all our examples have been American, and whatever their play with structure or their conformity to it, structure would seem to be the thing. But that is not Honore's thing, saying that recent French cinema has tried to be more screenplay driven, noting with dismay, "we see some directors and producers think that if we finally wrote screenplays with a lot of scriptwriters, very structured, we would be able to make films like Americans." (DVD Interview)
Such claims suggest that cinema is a result of its narrative structure, that if one can get the foundations right then all will be well. But this is a little like insisting that architecture shouldn't take into account the environment around which the buildings are being built: that good architecture would prioritise a given structure over the nuances that take into account climate, surrounding buildings, population needs and so on. Yet film is an art form that comes out of its environment just as readily as architecture, at least if we still see most films as possessing a pro-filmic dimension, a sense in which they are filming the world, however altered that world happens to be on screen. Honore wants to make films that honour this pro-filmic fact, saying that working with his producer Paulo Branco gives him immense freedom: Branco never reads the scripts and Honore tells him a bit about the story, where he will film, the general structure, the sort of budget required. It gives Honore the freedom to find his film in the process of shooting it, to use locations and actors spontaneously. "I think it enriches the film because it allows it to be surprising," he says of the minimal limits Branco places upon the production. (DVD Interview) It also allows in common parlance Paris to become a character in the film rather than a backdrop.
What happens to be the difference? A backdrop is dramatically useful, a place that can aid the drama without necessitating the attention to locale. Niagara in the film of that name by Henry Hathaway, for example, Hitchcock's use of Mt Rushmore in North by Northwest, the Louisiana bayous in the Bond film To Live and Let Die. The filmmakers see the dramatic potential of their use, without feeling at all loyal to the place in which the scenes are set. But when the location becomes a character in one's film, or for that matter the actors become subjects of your scrutiny, the script loses its centrality. In Les chansons d'amour actors and locale become as prominent as the story. Why would a filmmaker so interested in these elements insist on making the script so important? What matters is the means by which the locale and actors give birth to the narrative, rather than the story insisting on finding characters and locations to be placed within it. There may be a very specific form of narcissism in Honore's approach, but it is very distinct from the narcissism of the Hollywood star generically famous - with the latter often reliant on what we might call concealed narcissism as opposed to Honore's insistence on naked narcissism. When we see Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds taking a villain out or skidding away from the cops this is a man having to do what a man has to do within the conventions of the generic formula they find themselves in. The narcissism of their actions is clothed in the garments of the genre. In Les chansons d'amour it is more the reverse, as though the musical form the director semi-adopts is a way of allowing the actors to choose the genre they would wish to play in, rather like children trying on costumes according to their mood. When Ismael finds Julie in the street near the beginning of the film, he starts to sing and dance as they walk along. It would be a stretch to call this either singing or dancing if the point of comparison would be Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Garrel doesn't even like dancing, according to his father Louis, who says: "Louis Garrel, in general, is quite inhibited about dancing."(Mubi Notebook) Instead, it is closer to mock song and dance, with Ismael beseeching Julie to ignore his failings and admit to his charms. All that is needed is enough song and dance to convince her rather than us. The nakedness rests on Honore caring little if Garrel is any good or not - there is no generic expectation placed upon him as there would be on Astaire and Kelly to show their brilliance. If the story is firmly in place in American cinema, the actors are often no less firmly in place as the expectations of genre make certain demands upon them. As Honore says, "the reason why we make very few musicals in France is because French actors can't dance. They are not trained in the same way as the American performers, who were able to...." (DVD Interview)
This freedom Honore gives to the actors he extends to himself of course. Yet this isn't only in the looseness of the script; sometimes it can come paradoxically in the tightness of the narration: the sense in which the director takes responsibility for the story that he or she happens to tell. We can see this as the novelistic aspect of French cinema, found in Truffaut's Jules et Jim or Shoot the Pianist, Techine's Wild Reeds and My Favourite Season or Desplechin's Ma vie Sexuelle, and Kings and Queen, Mia Hanson-Love's Goodbye First Love and Eden. To explain in detail what this means in practice would require an essay in itself, but let us quote Honore speaking of his wish for a "novelistic distance" (DVD Interview) and indicate how that works in the context of Les Chansons d'amour specifically. If the American musical so often indicates a public expression, the French musical suggests the opposite. Partly resting on this plain fact that French actors can't sing or dance, there is little sense of the virtuoso display we see in Astaire, Kelly and other Americans who don't care how many people might hear them belting out their feelings - any vulnerability in emotion is more than met by dexterity in the craft. In Les Chansons d'amour since nobody can really sing or dance, this gives to the expression a private vulnerability, something closer to the novelistic notion of interior monologue. When early in the film, Julie gets off the bed she has been lying on with Ismael, she goes over by the window and sings about how love doesn't last; later on when the young man who has fallen in love with Ismael sings "have you ever loved for the sheer sake of it", these are moments that suggest a novelist moving between two characters thinking rather than two characters talking. It is more than dialogue even if it isn't quite voice-over. Yet while Gene Kelly and others seem very far away from voice over when they sing, this is like a variation of it in Les chansons d'amour. We have a sense that the characters aren't just expressing themselves but even more exposing themselves. Film struggles with what comes very naturally to the novel: interiority. Voice-over is a useful and often effective solution, and Truffaut is one such novelistic director who has used it very well, in anything from Jules et Jim to The Story of Adele H. Yet the French musical finds an alternative method of indicating the private thought while also exposing it to the public light. It makes it less than confession and more than chat. Honore may talk of a novelistic distance, yet at the same time it can create emotional intimacy.
We notice this again in the sequence when Julie dies. Honore offers plenty distanciating devices that he might call novelistic, but while agreeing they contain an aloof narrational concern, we can see this leads to more emotion rather than less, as if Honore is well aware that feeling is singularity: that to escape a convention you find the specific, and in finding the specific flirt with losing feeling in your determination to find it. By using black and white photographs of Julie and the medics, by relying on 'realistic'; diegetic sound with no non-diegetic music, by cutting back and forth between Julie treated on the street and Alice taking up with a new man in the club, oblivious to what is happening outside of it, Honore refuses to concentrate the scene emotionally. To concentrate the scene usually means reaction shots to concerned strangers, a non-diegetic score emphasising the crisis, and a sense of urgency concerning the life possibly getting lost. Honore does none of these things, as if determined to find a novelistic distance to the sequence in the sense that the novel cannot manipulate the reader as film so easily can. It has no equivalent to non-diegetic music, to the reaction shot, to the fast-paced cuts of cinema. Of course, literature manipulates us in its own way, but that is our point: Honore resists the manipulations that are usually film's way, finding in the toned down feeling a reserve that might seem closer to an abstract signifying system like the novel, rather than the more concrete one of film.
Obviously, Honore is still working in blocks of sound and image, but the question then becomes how do you neutralise some of cinema's melodramatic conventions by utilising other forms to create that distance? Honore talks of novelistic distance, but the operative word is distance as readily as the novelistic. Watching the sequence we notice the monochrome photographs of the characters and feel in the realm of documentary more than melodrama. The novelist in Honore's work needn't be taken literally - more as a means by which to make a film more consciously narrated. A film can more readily than literature seem to be telling itself - we have no equivalent of a first person and third person narrator, the passive or active tense, the past, present or future. To find the means by which to hint at their possibility can sometimes make a film novelistic: it feels like it possesses a narrator in the choices that are made which are not expected of cinema. We may see this most obviously in the use of photographs during Julie's collapse, but more assertively still in the cross-cuts between Alice and the crisis on the street. Alice is still inside the club, enjoying herself and oblivious to events elsewhere, but Honore instead of focusing on the scene outside cuts back into the club to see Alice and her new squeeze flirting with each other. However, the sounds we hear in the club are the sounds of the street, of the emergency services going about their business while we see Alice canoodling with the man. If Honore wanted to judge Alice then this would be a very good way of doing it: film is frequently implicit in its judgements when it is explicit in its editing. When a film cuts from a hungry person to a person eating in a restaurant, the notion of greed will be evident in the shots: the person merely having a meal initself will not necessarily suggest it. Equally, if Honore cuts between Julie collapsing on the street and Alice having fun in the club, he will be well aware it will be hard for us not to judge her for her actions even if she cannot be held responsible at all for what has happened. But Honore is seeking less our judgement than our bemusement, exacerbated by the outside sounds evident as we are visually within the club. It is again part of his novelistic distance, his determination to deny the melodrama potentially available in the scene for a narrated assertiveness that reminds us we are watching a film, even if the film wouldn't be working if we didn't feel the sense of loss. In other words, Honore wants the affect of loss but also to undermine the conventions that make us feel loss in the most conventional way.
When we regard a film as formulaic there are various reasons for this and we could do worse than think of other arenas where the predictable is usually accepted in one field and rejected in another. To use the term recipe in the context of food needn't be pejorative; to use it in the context of art it often happens to be. To speak of a chemical formula is fine; to believe that a script should have one can seem troublesome. But what about the telling of a universal story - does any nation other than the USA believe it tells stories that it can claim are universal? We see this universalism in American cinema in two ways that Honore would be keen to resist. The first is in telling stories that are not its own, co-opting the history of others for its own ends. This usually takes historical form. From Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ, from The Fall of the Roman Empire to Troy. Occasionally this is reversed as we can find in Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns, made by an Italian and filmed in the Spanish desert, but usually comedic or ironic in tone, as if acknowledging the chutzpah of telling an American story in Europe. The second is in believing that there are methods for telling a story that will make it universally appealing. But let us suggest that there are not stories which are universal, only primary affects and first principles: that we might be able to claim that fear, love, grief, lust and pride can be felt in any country in the world, and that first principles of justice, fraternity, integrity and sacrifice can be found likewise. However, if these are universals they are universal feelings and values. They are not universal stories. The story is what one creates in organizing these feelings and values into narrative shape. The risk of a top-down script writing method that assumes since American films are the most successful in the world, and that consequently, the best way to emulate that success is to follow a formula, is precisely what Honore, like the other novelistic French filmmakers we have mentioned, wishes to escape. If they assume that what makes a story universal is not its form but its feeling, and within that accept any story shouldn't try to universalise anyway but to tell its story as specifically as it can within its attempt to find these feelings and values, then the novelistic is a means by which to escape the 'pre-scriptive' - the script as a recipe, a formula. When Honore says "the time you take to write the screenplay is not important to me", he adds, "maybe it's because I'm a writer and I refuse to give any literary value to a screenplay. For me a screenplay is a draft" (DVD Interview), we see how little importance he places on the 'pre-scriptive', quite at odds with numerous American screenwriting manuals. Syd Field tells us that if someone says to him that the characters will determine the ending in the process of the film being made, or the ending will grow out of the story, Field will insist: "sorry but it doesn't work that way. At least not in screenwriting...the ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing." (Screenplay) Robert McKee reckons, "from inspiration to last draft you may need as much time to write a screenplay as to write a novel." (Story) Clearly Honore disagrees with both claims, perhaps believing that in such remarks resides a craft rather than an art, a set of givens that might be seen as quite flexible (Field worked briefly when he was young with Renoir; McKee has a great love for the films of Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini and Antonioni), but these are exceptions, often deviations. It is the norms that interest Field and McKee - but that is the problem for Honore: they become standardised methods for making movies that impact on national industries that aren't American.
By insisting on a novelistic approach to cinema that nevertheless has little respect for screenwriting, Honore and others find both an intimacy of presentation alongside a national identification: few watching Honore's Les Chansons d'amour, Beloved, Dans Paris, Ma Mere, or Hansen-Love's Goodbye First Love and Eden, Desplechin's Ma vie Sexuelle and Kings and Queen, will see them as other than French films. Like Honore, Hansen-Love and Desplechin have both talked about the difficulty they sometimes have getting their scripts financed. Hansen-Love reckons "it's written this way and what I am saying is not clear enough". Hansen-Love wants to escape the mechanics of cause and effect, saying that she wants from her work is for there to be "something very impressionistic about it." (Blackbook) Desplechin says, "when the actors come on board, they're going to change my perception of the script, incarnate it, give it a shove. When you find actors to incarnate your characters, you know you're going to film them and I try to let myself be affected by that." (Film Comment) This suggests that numerous French directors working loosely in the style we find in Les chansons d'amour do not have a character unless they have an actor. The actor isn't cast within a given role; they are that role and create within it. If we talk of the novelistic we are also talking about the intimiste - the means by which French directors get close to the character by getting close to the actor. If the novel is an interior form and cinema an external one, how can a director get close while respecting the form they work in?
To conclude, we will work specifically on three scenes in the film, showing how Honore generates intimacy through sound and image while also suggesting how Les Chansons d'amour resembles the work of Desplechin and Hansen-Love, and shows the influence of Truffaut just as readily as the great director of the French musical, Jacques Demy. Let us note that vital to this is loneliness. In the scene where we see Julie coming out of the cinema and walking along the street, we feel her isolation in the shot choices, but also within this we may notice Julie's quiet insouciance, an aspect of Ludovine Seigner characters in others films, from Water Drops on Burning Rocks to Swimming Pool. As we see her in medium long shot outside L'albatros (Le Brady) cinema, the camera holds on the medium shot of a brief exchange she has with someone else even as people pass in front of her. As the frame empties, the camera follows Julie as she starts to walk along the street before cutting to a couple of brief following shots familiar to the American horror but used here for a very different purpose, even if Ismael enters the second of those shots with the force of deliberate surprise. He nuzzles up close and she seems less annoyed by his sudden intervention than his earlier absence as she has been forced to go to the cinema alone. Before he arrives the soundtrack has been plaintive and suggestive: a few guitar cords leading us to expect what exactly? When Ismael turns up, the scene almost immediately moves into song as Julie can't hide her pleasure that he's arrived, and won't let her pride ignore the perceived slight. She wriggles away from his embrace and walks confidently along the street while Ismael stands there looking on longingly as he sings "I don't see why I should let you know the reasons why I love you." The film cuts to a medium long shot of Julie turning around and looking like she has heard what she needed to hear and Ismael can now walk beside her. This is a wintry Paris but the clothes offer warmth. Julie wears a conspicuously buttoned white coat while Ismael is warmly wrapped in a pink, blue and grey scarf long enough to reach to his knees while still folding around his neck. They seem vulnerable rather than dexterous, attractive without having to be stunning.
Like Desplechin and Hansen-Love, Honore is interested in creating tender images even if he can often be brutal in his narrative twists and perverse turns. Whether it is a threesome here followed not long afterwards by Julie's death, or the fascination between mother and son in Ma mere, Hansen-Love forcing her film into turn around after the death of the dad in The Father of My Children, or Desplechin watching his central character steadily collapse during his doctorate in Ma vie Sexuelle - Honore, Desplechin and Hansen-Love are all director who, like Truffaut can generate hard moments within soft images. But this is a harshness that comes out of the tender, out of the fragile nature of the emotionally human. It is partly why the 'dance' numbers - though carefully choreographed - needn't be skilled. The point isn't to show the performers' technical mastery, but to hint at their quiet misery or sentimental inclinations.
We see this in the scene where Ismael tells her family that Julie has died. In a dense montage sequence that uses still photographs in black and white, Ismael and others looking lost and confused, there is also a quote from Henri Micheaux: "many people have a soul that loves to swim. They are commonly known as lazy." Who this line might refer to is never clear, as though the sequence itself has no need for clarity but instead for delicacy. It wants to convey a collective, intimate grief through isolated moments that don't make sense but can nevertheless convey meaning. It is true of the film as a whole. Why exactly does Ismael fall to the street at a given moment; why does Jasmine so desperately need her book at the funeral? We can say of the former instance it is because it is so soon after leaving the hospital: he has in a plastic bag Julie's scarf and coat. Perhaps the sister will read Micheaux out at the graveside. But this an emotional density that has little call for plot logic and character psychology: as Beaupain's 'Delta Charlie Delta' plays on the soundtrack so we witness this collective grief. Honore insists on the grief itself rather than individuating the specifics of it. Yet at the same time, we do have the individual (a monochrome photograph of Jeanne crying, the reaction the absent book; Ismael collapsing on the street). It is this consideration for the specifics of the self without too much concern for the specifics of the action and the character that indicates the Micheaux quote is important to the film in total.
Our third example is one of the quietest scenes in the film, heavy with grief and light on conversation, as the characters vacillate between sharing their feelings and exposing their nerves as Ismael visits the family for dinner a while after Julie's death. The opening shot of the scene is a tight five shot with the characters placed in the bottom third of the frame: the mother, sister Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni)and Ismael with their faces to the camera; the father and the other sister Jasmine (Alice Butaud) with their back to us. It is a moment suggesting everyone is in their own world, or perhaps sharing one with the now dead Julie. The film then cuts to a medium shot of Ismael while Jeanne, off screen, invoking her dead sister. The film cuts again to the five of them in the same shot, this time, from the end of the table with all five characters' faces in view. The camera holds for a minute, not moving yet not quite still, as if a little raw itself. The mother gets up and asks if anyone wants cheese or salad; the only taker is Jeanne who is then asked to make it. There is tension and tiredness in the mother's voice, but also the suggestion that just after bringing up Julie's name how easy should Jeanne find it to keep down her food. The whole scene is subdued yet tense: when Jasmine goes off to her room her father warns her: "no hysterics". When the father brings up the fact that there are twenty thousand euros in Julie's account and that Ismael should have the money, Ismael responds dismissively, offended that it has been mentioned at all. The film then cuts to the sisters, the mother and Ismael in the kitchen tidying up and Ismael turns a tablecloth into a puppet character that eventually gets everyone smiling. While we can safely assume that the cut from the initial shot of the five characters in the frame to Ismael listening to Jeanne indicates no time passing, we might assume an hour or more has passed from the father talking to Ismael, to Ismael and the others in the kitchen. This is partly because in the earlier moment we see Ismael with his fist against his chin and shares the same gesture in the next shot, while in the later one the characters have moved from one room to another, but what is interesting about the scene is how much time it manages to contain within it. Honore pressurises the scene with grief, just as in the montage sequence he generated density of feeling. The montage scene indicates that everybody is devastated; the dinner sequence that everyone is devastated in their own way. Though it is a group scene, we have no sense that they are all grieving similarly. At the end of the sequence, as Ismael leaves, Jeanne says: "I'm glad you're okay. It helps us all." She closes the door if not quite in his face, then at least before he starts walking away from it. There seems to be judgment in her remark but one not easy to place, with everyone quietly feeling guilt and no one keen to take responsibility for that guilt. There has been no reason for Julie's death, no illness that they missed, no suicide they might feel culpable for. It is that no one knows how to respond and seems to be trying to get their cues from others. There may also be further complications: earlier, but long after Julie's death, Jeanne comes over to stay and a brief gesture from Ismael as he puts the palm of his hand on her face induces a longing look on her visage before he pulls it away. When she closes the door more or less in his face is this because he hasn't grieved enough for Julie or that he hasn't shown enough affection towards Jeanne? Feelings are complicated at the best of times, Honore, seems to say, and these are the worst of them.
Les Chansons d'amour keeps adding to the complications and yet lightly also uncomplicates them in the last third of the film when Ismael takes up with another man. It seems consistent with the French musical and perhaps more generally French cinema that the sexual aspect will be quite simple but the emotional lives subtly complicated. Honore manages to make a film that respects the French tradition of the melancholic musical, shows himself as someone like Hansen-Love and Desplechin a contemporary French filmaker interested in the novelistic tradition indebted not a little to Truffaut, and finds the formal means by which to indicate that while life goes on after someone's death this needn't be a truism, but a look at how specifically these lives continue. Speaking more recently, Honore has said: "It is increasingly difficult for me not to ask myself this question about who the spectator is for my films. When I started making movies, I didn't care. I was caught up in the excitement of making cinema. I was responding to all the films I had seen, with my own films. I was writing myself into the larger cinephiliac concert!" He reckons "Today, I've lost that spirit, though not from a loss of desire for the cinema. What has changed is the environment for the production and distribution of films. The discourse of cinema is in decline in France." (Film Comment) That may be so but can we look to Honore and a few others to see that as long as death is handled with a sense of nuance, as it is here, the cinema itself need not be dying at all?
© Tony McKibbin