Last night, PJ and I rewatched Les Chansons d’Amour, a French film written and directed by Christophe Honoré and starring our favorite French actor, Louis Garrel. It premiered in the U.S. earlier this year, but we first watched it on dvd through Netflix. I liked it so much that I decided to buy it once the dvd became widely available. It’s a great film.

This quirky musical is ostensibly about ménage à trois between Ismaël, played by Garrel, his girlfriend Julie, played by Ludivine Sagnier, and his co-worker Alice, played by Clotilde Hesme. The film is divided into three acts. In Act 1, The Departure, the threesome, which, after a month of togetherness has begun to fall apart, is rocked by tragedy. Act 2, The Absence, looks at Ismaël’s attempts to deal with the absence of love in his life, but Act 3, The Return, presents him with an unexpected romantic opportunity in the form of Erwann, played by Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. Here’s the trailer:

This film is unlike just about any other film I’ve ever seen. First, the music isn’t glammed up. The songs are relatively simple, and the actors sing their parts without sounding like professional recording artists. I really liked the tentativeness this brought to many of their duets (and trios), a feeling that often reflected the emotions the characters are expressing in the words of the song. Second, the opening act’s action blends realism with non-realism. Some of the characters’ dialogue (especially that between the three lovers) is playful and self-consciously performative, by which I mean that the characters know they’re performing roles for one another and that in self-consciously performing the role they are simultaneously making those roles “real.” These moments, however, are also recognitions that the three lovers are falling apart. They are trying to substitute these performances for the “real,” something that may only temporarily work. And finally, this film blends comedy, romance, and tragedy in a very sophisticated way. I think it’s rare for a musical to really explore the death of a loved one and to show how that loss can devastate lovers, friends, and family. This one goes there.

I think everything about this movie is delightfully mesmerizing. Louis Garrel is at risk for being type-cast as the sexy, playful, semi-intellectual ne’er-do-well lost in expectations and pressures of modern society.(We’ve seen in him in a few other movies, almost all of which feature him exploring sexuality and romance. I’ll sum up my thoughts about these films below.) He’s great at playing this part, but it would also be interesting to see him in an eighteenth-century costume drama, though I guess playing Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses would essentially be the same role). Regardless, he’s great in this movie. I also admired the joy and innocence that Leprince-Ringuet brings to his role.

These actors, and perhaps what I’m saying about the film’s use of music, come together in this scene. Up to this point, Ismaël has resisted Erwann’s persistent advances. As we all know, persistence pays off:

As beautiful and romantic as this scene’s call for renewal in the arms of a new lover is, it’s not even these two characters’ most beautiful and romantic scene (or song), which is the final scene in the movie. This last scene is one of the great gay love scenes of all time in its quiet, romantic negotiation of what each of these characters wants. The last line of the film is especially wonderful. The last scene is available on YouTube, but I don’t recommend that anyone watch it unless you see the movie first.

I’ll just mention one other scene in the film that I especially love. Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, plays Julie’s sister. She has a great song about loss in which she considers how everything else goes on just like before after someone is gone. It’s a powerful moment in the film:

Overall, this is another in a line of Louis Garrel films that I’ve liked. PJ and I first saw him in The Dreamers, in which he played one part of a French brother-sister duo who open  up American Michael Pitts life experiences. Then we saw Ma Mère, also directed by Honoré, in which he plays a young man introduced to a libertine lifestyle by his mother (played by Isabelle Hupert). Most recently, we saw him in Honoré’s Dans Paris, in which he plays a young man trying to save his brother from potential suicide while also dealing with his own complicated life. It’s not a musical, but it does have one great song in it, a moment in which the brother is singing a duet with his ex-girlfriend on the phone:

We’ve seen Garrel in one or two other movies too (including Regular Lovers, directed by Garrel’s father), but I don’t remember much about them now. Les Chansons d’Amour is certainty up there among his best work. He is now branching out into writing and directing. YouTube also has some clips of interviews with Garrel, who always seems to bring intelligence to his roles. He comes from a filmmaking family of directors and actors, so it’s not surprising that he’s well-versed in the history and craftsmanship of movie making. His is a career I hope to continue following.