Jacques Demy's raindrops keep falling on the heads of French filmmakers. While Jean-Luc Godard has to be the French new wave's historical and critical favorite, the legacy of Demy has arguably inspired more imitation or homage. In the past decade, François Ozon (2002's 8 Women) and Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (1998's Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) have mined or mimed Demy's distinct use of color and musicality, though even Ozon's bright red is blue-blooded, and the charms of Ducastel and Martineau's effort don't include Demy's graceful staging and assured storytelling. Now, with his third feature Love Songs, new wave lover Christophe Honoré has forged an uneasy marriage. He's set out to connect and update the romantic wisdom and classical dramatic structures of Demy with the arch political wit of '60s Godard.
Love Songs proves few movies are entirely terrible or terrific. Its crushworthy final half-hour is touching and sometimes magnificent. But much of its initial hour is maddening. It begins well, because Honoré is attuned to the mood-setting power of well-deployed credits. Handsome, last-name-only opening titles are the first of the film's textual nods to Godard, which continue when various books play cameo roles much as they do in Godard's 1961 musical A Woman Is a Woman. Tomes by Henri Michaux and Hervé Guibert become effective shorthand for characters' desires. But novelist and playwright Honoré's sole moment of spine-chilling as opposed to groan-inducing wordplay takes place when he simply makes his protagonist Ismaël (Louis Garrel, attempting to channel Jean-Pierre Léaud) read the nighttime signs of the 10th Arrondissement.
Garrel's character is the focal point of Love Songs, but the film's hidden star is Honoré's longtime musical collaborator Alex Beaupain, who appears in a pivotal scene, performing the lovely piano ballad "Brooklyn Bridge." Beaupain is stuck with the job of bringing Michel Legrand's jazz-inflected pop orchestrations for Godard and Demy into the 21st century. Melodically, he's up to the task, especially when evoking the neo-Gainsbourg rock of Benjamin Biolay. But he isn't helped by Honoré's libretto contributions, because Honoré seems to misinterpret the pop opera of 1964's Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a basic copying of old Hollywood musical traditions, when in fact it was a radical yet classical revision. Honoré assumes the casual multigenre musicality of Love Songs is more contemporary, but that's arguable.
In their previous film together, 2006's Dans Paris, Honoré and Beaupain discovered naturalistic, inventive intersections between drama and music sequences. Love Songs is more traditional in form, saving its radical aspect for a view and presentation of sexuality that's far more fluid than one finds in contemporary cinema, straight or gay. Honoré is out to disavow exactly those kinds of divisions, and if he's not helped greatly by Garrel, he's aided immeasurably by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, whose arrival in the film's second half takes the story out of a tritely fatalistic ménage-a-trois realm. He's also saved by Chiara Mastroianni. Her presence is Honoré's ultimate invocation of Demy, since she's the daughter of signature Demy star Catherine Deneuve. (She also brings the off-camera baggage of a recent breakup from chanson specialist Biolay to her part.) Her role might appear secondary, but her solo number signals the return of the melody at the film's heart. Her melancholic understatement testifies that Honoré hasn't lost the attraction to eroticism that inspired his brash attempt to bring Georges Bataille to the screen with 2004's Ma mère. He's just made it as pop as he possibly can by setting it to music.