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‘Love Songs for Tough Guys’ Review: Thugs Deserve Romance Too in Lighthearted Romp

Poetry, theater, and love intermingle in coastal France.

Love Songs for Tough Guys
Courtesy of UGC

“What if the mob, but funny?” is the question asked by “Love Songs for Tough Guys,” and if your answer is “Isn’t that just ‘Analyze This?’” you aren’t alone. Still, this French spin on the thug-with-a-heart-of-gold story distinguishes itself somewhat with a romantic bent that is, at least in fits and starts, genuinely romantic. The rest of the time, co-writer-director Samuel Benchetrit’s lighthearted romp struggles to find a place for itself.

Leading the eponymous group of heavies is Jeff de Claerke (François Damiens), whose low-level thuggery leaves him just enough time to take a poetry class so he can woo a local checkout girl. His wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) isn’t aware of his would-be affair, leading her to believe the poorly written ode she finds discarded in the trash one day is actually for her. His crew isn’t the most intimidating — one is always quoting books on inner peace, while another seems far too gentle to be in this line of work in the first place — and it’s only when punching down that they exert any real power.

More than one scene consists of nothing more than two of Jeff’s goons violently persuading teenage girls to either attend or skip a party being held in honor of Jeff’s daughter, for instance — scenarios seemingly intended to be funny that don’t exactly elicit laughter. Too, his love poems being incomprehensible to their intended target is amusing enough the first time but mostly just sad after that.

It’s possible, if not likely, that Benchetrit’s brand of humor lands better in the original French than it does when subtitled — they say that poetry is what’s lost in translation, but comedy is just as difficult to convey. (For further proof, consider the film’s much more evocative original title of “Cette musique ne joue pour personne,” or “This Music Plays for No One”.) Certainly, French audiences at the Cannes film festival, where it premiered, and COLCOA, where it recently made its stateside bow, are more apt to appreciate seeing so many recognizable stars poking fun at their usual screen personas.

As is often the case, existentialism saves the day here. There’s a strain of absurdity to all this befitting the play-within-a-movie being rehearsed, which happens to be the funniest and most successful of the many subplots: a take on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship that’s imperiled by every actor cast as Sartre dying à la the drummer in “This Is Spinal Tap.” At least one of those untimely demises is courtesy of Jacky (Gustave Kervern), yet another of Jeff’s underlings, who contrives to get involved with the production after meeting the actress playing de Beauvoir (Vanessa Paradis) while attempting to collect money from her ill-fated roommate.

“Love Songs for Tough Guys” is at its loveliest when it stops trying to be funny and simply lets its characters be, as when Jacky participates in an exercise in which he and his fellow actors keep an imaginary feather afloat by blowing it from person to person. This isn’t the film’s only grace note, but it is the most effective. The longer it goes on, in fact, the more the film begins to feel like a French, mob-inflected “Love, Actually” — a cross-section of lovesick characters making connections with unexpected people in unexpected ways. Like the film itself, only a few of them are lucky in love, but the pursuit itself can sometimes be worthwhile regardless of the result.

‘Love Songs for Tough Guys’ Review: Thugs Deserve Romance Too in Lighthearted Romp

Reviewed in COLCOA (online), Nov. 5, 2021. Running time: 107 MIN. (Original title: “Cette musique ne joue pour personne”)

  • Production: (France-Belgium) A UCG Int'l presentation of A Single Man Prods., in co-production with UGC, JM Films, Gapbusters, Shelter Prod, RTBF, Proximus, VOO Et BETV, Movie Pictures, Pictanovo, with the support of la Région Hauts-de-France, in partnership with CNC, OCS, in association with Sofitvcine 7. (World sales: Orange Studio, Paris.) Producer: Julien Madon. Co-producers: Joseph Rouschop, Jean-Yves Roubin.
  • Crew: Director: Samuel Benchetrit. Screenplay: Samuel Benchetrit, Gábor Rassov. Camera: Pierre Aïm. Editor: Clémence Diard.
  • With: François Damiens, Ramzy Bedia, Vanessa Paradis, Gustave Kervern, JoeyStarr, Bouli Lanners, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.
  • Music By: