Juggling 13 tunes into any musical is difficult enough, so it’s no surprise the task comes close to overwhelming “Love Songs.” Likeable film doesn’t measure up to helmer Christophe Honore’s previous “Inside Paris,” stumbling a bit in capturing the genuine grief that sits at its heart, though once again his feel for family is unerring and some of pic’s greatest charms come from the warmth they inspire. Unabashedly French in its handling of threesomes and porous sexuality, this tale of a romance cut short by tragedy yet finding a way toward love again should play well locally, with respectable offshore prospects.
Honore’s love of musicals is apparent, and he thankfully plays it straight. Avoiding even a hint of tongue-in-cheek irony, he relies on the effectiveness of songs conveying pure, genuine emotions in ways often more difficult to achieve when simply spoken. All the performers use their own voices to fine effect, and Honore ensures that both dialogue and lyrics flow one from the other, practically eliminating the musical form’s innate artificiality.
The helmer’s muse, Louis Garrel, plays Ismael in a long-term relationship with Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). They’re in the early stage of a menage a trois with Ismael’s co-worker Alice (Clotilde Hesme), though Julie confides to sister Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni) that it’s not quite what she wants. If Ismael is aware of any hesitation on her part, it’s not shown, but his affable breeziness signals an immaturity that would have difficulty delving into his partner’s real desires.
Tragedy strikes when Julie drops dead from an embolism. Though maintaining a privileged place within her intellectual family’s life, Ismael prefers to deal with his grief alone. His pairing with Alice is ended, but it’s Jeanne’s need to process with him that he finds especially difficult to take. A puppy-dog crush from high schooler Erwann (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) is gently kept at arm’s length, but the openness and uncomplicated love the young man offers becomes a conduit out of his current state of loss.
Conceived by Honore as a tribute to a dead friend, the helmer is perhaps too close to his subject, never quite able to bring himself to linger on the grief that should be at pic’s core. He’s interested in exploring different ways of coping but can’t find the balance between Ismael’s solitary turmoil and the character’s seeming superficiality. When Garrel sings “Every minute is like a sob” walking down a Paris street, the depth of emotion isn’t quite believable.
That song is the only one that has the whiff of a musicvid feel — the others, while not especially memorable, are generally shot in the same manner as dialogue scenes, and the camera is appropriately cinematic in the way it inclusively picks up others as they continue a refrain. An exception is the best of the lot, “Parc de la Pepiniere,” in which Jeanne looks straight at the camera as she sings of the hole in her life.
Some of Alex Baupain’s tunes were already written, others composed specifically for the film. They’re pleasant affairs, each tuned to the characters’ states of mind, but the melodies aren’t distinctive enough to leave more than a passing impression. There are also too many of them, especially in the first section, giving the characters little time to come to grips with their feelings before having to sing again.
Those not already won over to Garrel’s easy charm may find his light-hearted, teasing jocularity less than winning, though he excels in this department and proves he’s more than capable of handling his songs. Mastroianni has the most resonance, imbuing a solid depth to her grief that feels more appropriately weighty than anything else on screen. Another plus is the excellent Leprince-Ringuet (in Andre Techine’s “Strayed”), beautifully capturing the inextinguishable passion of first love. His scenes with Garrel may well be the most purely tender Honore has filmed to date.
Much as it did in “Inside Paris,” the City of Lights becomes an ideal staging ground, familiar and much beloved. Despite a hurried shoot and modest budget ($2.2 million), there’s no sense of tech compromises.