I had a most peculiar relationship to this film. I really disliked it when I saw it in the cinema. I have never seen a Christophe Honoré film before, and this was a problem. If you intend to see this film, I strongly recommend finding out about the sorts of films he makes, as this will greatly enhance your appreciation of the film. I had no idea everyone was going to burst into song. I mean, when the blurb in my FFF guide said “..a film of many delights, not the least of which is the sight of Deneuve’s character strolling through Paris, singing through tears and revisiting her reckless youth,” I was not aware that meant she would be singing! It greatly helps if you are aware this is what will happen.
Because I didn’t know about ‘the singing’, I was shocked when characters burst into songs with full orchestral backup, without any of the ‘ode-to-musicals’ camp. At first I was appalled. It was too stupid to be true. However, something compelled me to stay. The next issue was the films 135 minute length. I was appalled by this as well. However – something compelled me to stay.
As the days have rolled by, the film has grown on me. There certainly is something special about it.
Christophe Honoré is considered an “auteur” in French Cinema. His 2006 film “Dans Paris” has led him to be considered by French critics as the heir to the Nouvelle Vague Cinema. In 2007, Les Chansons d’amour was one of the films selected to be in competition at the2007 Cannes Film Festival. While I would have scoffed at these accolades on Saturday night, by tonight (Tuesday) I am starting to see where it is all coming from.
In the so light it is almost silly opening sequence set in 1964, young shoe-store salesgirl Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier, looking more like Twiggy than ever) steals a pair of designer heels at work. While wearing them, she’s accosted by a man who assumes she is a whore (!). Much to her own surprise, Madeleine starts playing along (!), perhaps hoping she won’t need to resort to stealing again to have what she wants.
One of her tricks, handsome Czech doctor Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), falls in love with her and asks her to come with him back to Prague, where they eventually have a child. This sets the stage for the first four songs, with the second, simply called “Prague,” the most effective. Sagnier’s throaty voice imbues the song with raw emotional power as she explores how she feels about her husband’s infidelity.
Soon, with the help of some framing scenes, we work out that Madeline’s youth is being examined through the eyes of her grown up daughter Vera (Mastroianni) who idealizes her mothers ‘Madonna / Whore’ life (grown up Vera’s mother is played by Deneuve, Mastroianni’s real mother) and her cheating Father to an extreme degree. We start to understand why soon into the film. Madeline was able to be a prostitute, have two marriages and continually conduct extra-marital affairs, while Vera, who has grown up with the on-set of AIDS, is forced to fear sex and has committment phobia. This is brought out in Vera’s impossible love for Henderson (Paul Schneider), an American she meets in London in 1997. His homosexuality convinces her that he is perfect fo her. Despite the fact that the gorgeous Clement (Louis Garrel), her writing colleague and ex lover is still desperate for her, vera wants Henderson – a man she can’t possibly have.
The music here is written by Alex Beaupin and (i now know) the music (songs) are meant to extend the conversations or thoughts of the characters for powerful effect. These are not songs meant to be played out of context – they are a deliberate use of sound as an extension of emotion. They will not become chart toppers. The Lyrics even, dominate the sound, as if the characters are simply singing their thoughts – literally. A huge problem for non-french viewers is that the translations of the songs come across as banal and odd. I’ve now read that the translations hurt the original – and that certainly sits with my experience of this film.
The film covers four decades ( I guess that accounts for its length) and four countries, ending up in America the day after 9/11. Honoré is not interested in history or in the relationships between people and country / countries, but only what concerns the sweep of the human heart, and what might drive and influence. Despite the appearance of 9/11, e doesn’t use any landmarks from any of the famous cities his characters find themselves in, instead focussing on the human condition and the relationships with others.
I’ll give you a taste of the Variety review by Boyd Van Hoeij, from which I got a lot of help for this review:
Pic’s 138-minute running time is certainly excessive, but the fluffy early scenes, which contain an unusual number of shots of feet and shoes, are necessary to give the later, more dramatic scenes more heft. The film’s big emotional wallop comes from an impressive Montreal-set sequence beautifully played by Schneider (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Bright Star”) and Mastroianni, whose characters come eye-to-eye with each other and their own shortcomings.
All in all, I like this film more and more the further I get away from it. Mastroianni and Deneuve are really great – not to mention Milos Forman who plays Vera’s dad when he is older – and I found myself quite captivated by Mastroianni who is really very good. It’s been a bit of a bewildering experience, but I have to confess, I have found myself thinking about the film a great deal in the subsequent days.