Les Chansons d’amour is unusual because of the realism of its characters, setting and story; the film has little dance and no big production numbers, but it is a musical. The film needs its songs to exist. Moreover, as a musical, Les Chansons d’amour draws on several conventions of the traditional Hollywood musical. Honoré and Beaupain adapt these conventions with more care than may be apparent on a single viewing. The result is that their film is a moving musical drama, short, simple, with a straightforward narrative, believable characters and fourteen numbers that develop the narrative and the characters’ psychology.
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Les Chansons d’amour is a musical drama rather than a musical comedy, the more usual form in the genre. Its thematic preoccupation is with grief. The film begins by depicting the problems in Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and Ismaël’s (Louis Garrel’s) eight-year relationship. They are arguing about their future and have become involved (for one month, so far) in a ménage-a-trois with Alice (Clotilde Hesme) (Fig. 1). The first two songs express Julie’s frustrations with Ismaël; they imply that Julie and Ismaël’s stagnating relationship is unravelling.1 Thirty minutes into the film, Julie’s death shifts the film’s focus to the survivors and their grief. After an unspecified time, Ismaël meets Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). The latter is attracted to Ismaël, who is still getting over Julie’s death. After a few meetings, Erwann and Ismaël sleep together, but Ismaël, overwhelmed by guilt, visits Julie’s grave, where he imagines her reaction to his sleeping with Erwann. Following this, Ismaël gets drunk and goes to see Alice. Knowing Erwann’s affection for Ismaël, she takes Ismaël to see Erwann, and the film ends with the pair embracing.
Nick Rees-Robert, David Gerstner, and Julien Nahmias discuss Les Chansons d’amour as an example of contemporary French queer filmmaking. Isabelle Vanderschelden and Douglas Morrey discuss it as an example of post-nouvelle vague filmmaking. Honoré himself denies Les Chansons d’amour is a musical: “it’s less a musical comedy than a film with song” (Orange 2008).2 Honoré is correct: Les Chansons d’amour is not a musical comedy. But it is an integrated musical, one that draws on conventions established in American musicals. Furthermore, its achievement as a musical is central to what makes Les Chansons d’amour so successful. Admittedly, there is not much dancing in the film, although there are some choreographed movements; but the film’s central accomplishment as a musical is the way in which it integrates narrative and numbers.
For Gerald Mast, the integration of narrative and numbers is the main challenge faced by all makers of musicals:
The means of moving from one order of reality or style to another, generated by technology in The Jazz Singer, became a conceptual problem for every musical film to follow: What conventions would lead from the ordinary prose of conversation to the poeticized expansiveness of song and dance? (Mast 1987: 88-89)
This problem is solved if the musical is about a musical performer (Fig. 2). Hence, although several types of musicals exist, the backstage or show musical dominates the genre because backstage musicals naturalise the relationship between numbers and narrative. As Babington and Evans write, “many more than half the musicals ever made are of the backstage type” (1985: 55). Steven Cohan (2010) notes that since 2000 the teen musical has had a minor resurgence, in television programmes as well as feature films, thus confirming Jane Feuer’s observation (1993: 91) that the musical moved into other media during the 1980s.3 Several recent musicals are backstage musicals, with examples such as the High School Musical films (2006, 2007, 2008, Kenny Ortega), Pitch Perfect (2012, Jason Moore), Camp (2003, Todd Graff), The Marc Pease Experience (2009, Todd Louiso), and Glee (2009-2015).
However, Les Chansons d’amour is an integrated musical rather than a backstage musical; its numbers develop the narrative and express the characters’ desires, thoughts, and feelings. The film has only one of what Feuer (1993: 25) calls a “proscenium number,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” performed on stage by the film’s composer, Alex Beaupain. The other thirteen songs are integrated narrative numbers. Les Chansons d’amour’s combination of the musical and drama is unusual, but there have been previous attempts to modernise musicals by giving them more serious subject matters: A Star Is Born (1954, George Cukor), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970, Vincente Minnelli), Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse), New York, New York (1977, Martin Scorsese), and Hair (1979, Milos Forman).
These American musicals differ from Honoré’s film, not least in the type of singing. The tonal range of Honoré’s singers is limited; their voices sound untrained and musically weak. They lack range, power, or the capacity for subtle expressions of tonal variety. The performers in Les Chansons d’amour (Garrel, Sagnier, Mastroianni, and Hesme) are film stars rather than professional singers, yet their star personae have a significant resonance and their voices’ apparent weakness adds authenticity to their sung expressions. Their singing expresses their characters’ thoughts and feelings, while conveying a strong element of individual identity. To accommodate less accomplished voices, the vocal delivery in Les Chansons d’amour is consistently soft and semi-spoken. Some songs have a more upbeat tempo, but the melodic range is limited and the rhythms are straightforward.
In many ways, the musical is an artificial genre, but realism is present in the fact that the actors sing in their own voices. As Mast writes: “The performer in a musical does not merely make singing sounds but externalizes inner states through the sounds and phrases of a singing instrument” (1987: 93-94). For Mast, “musicals are performance truths” (1987: 266). In Les Chansons d’amour, the actors’ voices, with all their imperfections and limitations, are vital; the performers externalise their feelings using “the sounds and phrases of a singing instrument.” Christophe Honoré states:
I like it when they can’t sing. I like to see their vulnerability in the singing segments. It feels like they forget they’re acting; as a result, they’re focused on something other than the psychology or the blocking, and that lets me film them in laid-back situations. In Demy’s films, the song is much more operatic. (Gerstner and Nahmias 2015: 195)
Honoré’s contrast is apposite: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964, Jacques Demy) is more operetta than musical; there are no separate songs, and all the dialogue is sung.
In contrast, Les Chansons d’amour has distinct songs, all of which have a verse-chorus form. Honoré states: “With Demy, on the other hand, actors rarely repeat the same line. We are much closer to the Hollywood musical, which took standards from the American songbook that people already knew by heart” (Cléder and Picard 2014: 175-176). Beaupain also admits that although he and Honoré admire Demy’s films, “our songs are very far from Demy’s universe and Michel Legrand’s music, which has a sort of jazz and fugue influence; my own [songs] are closer to pop music, French song and piano-voice combinations” (Cléder and Picard 2014: 216). One potential influence on Honoré and Beaupain’s work is the “realist singer” of 1930s French films: Fréhel in Coeur de lilas (1932, Anatole Litvak) and Pepé le moko (1937, Julien Duvivier); Damia in Sola (1931, Henri Diamant-Berger) and La Tête d’un homme (1933, Julien Duvivier); Odette Barencey in Faubourg Montmatre (1931, Raymond Bernard); and Edith Piaf in La Garçonne (1936, Jean de Limur). It is tempting to hear a link between these singers’ melancholy tones and Honoré’s singers, but Kelley Conway observes that the recognition of the singing star is a crucial part of the way that singers like Fréhel and Damia are incorporated into fiction; of Damia’s singing in La tête d’un homme, Conway writes: “as is so often the case with the realist singer, her symbolic weight in the narrative far outweighs her actual screen time” (Conway 2001: 150). The 1930s singers were well-known music hall performers before they appeared in films; Fréhel’s songs in Coeur de lilas “rely for their fullest meaning upon the spectators’ knowledge of the two sides of Fréhel’s persona” (Conway 2004: 110). French filmmakers exploited the existing appeal of celebrity singers. This is not the case with Honoré’s singers in Les Chansons d’amour.
Beaupain’s songs take their place with the tradition of popular French song, including postwar singers like Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, Jean Ferrat, and Barbara, whose “Ce matin là” plays over the end credits. However, Beaupain cites more recent influences, such as Etienne Daho, Taxi Girl, Daniel Darc, and Frédéric Lo (Cléder and Picard 2014: 217). Lo worked with Beaupain on the arrangement and production of Chansons d’amour’s songs, and one can hear the resemblances between Beaupain’s songs and Daniel Darc’s songs on Darc’s 2004 album Crèvecoeur, which was produced, as Beaupain notes, by Lo.
There are fourteen numbers in Les Chansons d’amour: six duets, six solos, one stage number, and one group number, albeit one in which the characters sing five separate verses.
1. “De Bonnes raisons” – duet between Ismaël and Julie
2. “L’Inventaire” – duet between Ismaël and Julie
3. “La Bastille” – solos by five family members
4. “Je n’aime que toi” – trio by Julie, Ismaël, and Alice
5. “Brooklyn Bridge” – solo performance by Beaupain in nightclub
6. “Delta Charlie Delta” – solo by Ismaël
7. “Il faut se taire” – duet by Alice and Ismaël
8. “As-tu déjà aimé?” – duet by Ismaël and Erwann
9. “Les Yeux au ciel” – solo by Ismaël
10. “La Distance” – duet between Ismaël and Erwann
11. “Ma mémoire sale” – solo by Isamël to Erwann
12. “Au Parc” – solo by Jeanne
13. “Si tard” – solo by Julie to Ismaël
14. “J’ai cru entendre” – duet between Ismaël and Erwann
As was often the case with Hollywood musicals, six numbers predate the film, taken from Beaupain’s first album, Garçon d’honneur (2005). These are: “Les Yeux au ciel” (on album Au ciel), “Pourquoi viens-tu si tard?,” “Il faut se taire” (on album Se taire), “Parc de la Pépinière,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” and “As-tu déjà aimé?” (on album La beauté d’un geste). Beapain’s songs all tend to revolve around repeated simple phrases that develop from narrative situations. With a verse-chorus form, his songs repeat lyrics and melodies several times; all can function as stand-alone pieces, as they have done in Beaupain’s live shows.
The solos work as equivalents to soliloquies or voice-overs, intimate revelations of personal thoughts accepted as external expressions through convention. “Les Yeux au ciel” is Ismaël’s soliloquy about grief, sung after he leaves Julie’s family home (Fig. 3). It accompanies his journey home and contains a haunting pause in the music when he looks down the street where Julie died (Fig. 4). While the solos give external expression to internal feelings, the duets function as conversations or arguments. When Julie and Ismaël sing “De Bonnes raisons” and “L’Inventaire,” she complains to him about their relationship (Fig. 5). The lyrics explain the reasons for their conflict, which the songs intensify. Both “De Bonnes raisons” and “L’Inventaire” present Julie and Ismaël’s arguments and express the characters’ dissatisfactions, but the balance shifts in the second song; Ismaël tries to be affectionate while Julie continues to complain about their relationship (Fig. 6). He moans about her mother’s telephone calls. She sings: “Eight years of love, one Thursday, in my school pack, your sole letter that day. Nine will I make it? I can’t lie.” Her next lines, “I know you’re mine/But love can die,” represent the film’s opening premise. In their mid- to late twenties, Julie and Ismaël are questioning whether they want to spend their lives together. The song suggests their relationship has stagnated. “What memories do you have of me,” she sings. He replies: “Maybe we’d better, leave it at that.”
“L’Inventaire” continues the theme of “De Bonnes raisons,” but both music and words are more serious, as is appropriate for the change from outside on the street, where he surprised her, to inside their apartment. In the middle of “L’Inventaire,” an inserted exterior shot of a motorcyclist zooming past gives a jolt of pleasure. The motorbike’s engine noise is in time with the song; the music pauses during the shot of the bike, and the engine noise takes over (Fig. 7). The motorbike and the musical pause add realism; the shot is motived by Julie moving to the window and looking out (Fig. 8). This duet expresses Julie’s frustrations with her relationship; the shot of the motorbike represents her point of view as she looks beyond the flat she shares with Ismaël. It is appropriate that after the shot of the motorbike, Julie turns back to look at Ismaël and sings: “Too much hurt/For the good/When you add it all up/Love, you love me how much/Everything fades, it’s an open book.”
In the trio “Je n’aime que toi,” Julie expresses her frustration even more forcefully. Alice, Julie and Ismaël sing as they run and dance along the street, on their way to the nightclub (Fig. 9). The song has an up-tempo rhythm, yet it expresses a major argument between Julie and Ismaël, with Alice trying to make peace between them. Julie gives Ismaël an ultimatum:
Little shit, make your choice
We’ll be two, no longer three
That’s all over, let’s rejoice
Come on, it’s her or me
The song clarifies that Ismaël and Julie are both jealous and angry. In fact, overall, four of the five numbers before Julie’s death express her exasperation with Ismaël, implying that if she had lived, she and Ismaël would have separated.
Besides dancing, one other convention of film musicals that Les Chansons d’amour restricts is direct address. Traditionally, when characters sing to the camera as if to an internal audience, the device encourages complicity between character and audience. In “La Bastille,” Julie looks at the camera briefly as she sings about Paris on a rainy Sunday afternoon (Fig. 10). In “Au Parc,” Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni) looks at the camera throughout her song, her direct address accentuating her melancholic delivery. In both cases, the direct address increases the intimacy between character and audience.
Other songs in Les Chansons d’amour express thoughts and feelings without direct address; for example, “Delta Charlie Delta,” “Les Yeux aux ciel,” and “Si Tard.” These numbers share a staging principle. In each, Ismaël walks along the streets, going from police station to home with “Delta Charlie Delta,” from Julie’s parents’ flat to his home with “Les Yeux aux ciel,” and from cemetery to bar with “Si Tard.” These three numbers express Ismaël’s grief at different stages. “Delta Charlie Delta” expresses his shock in the immediate aftermath of Julie’s death. In “Les Yeux au ciel,” Ismaël sings of his ongoing sadness. “Si Tard” expresses his guilty imagining of Julie’s reaction to his having slept with Erwann (Fig. 11). The “Si Tard” number uses some of the conventions of the musical dream sequence by visualising Julie’s ghostly appearance, first walking alongside Ismaël as he leaves the cemetery, then appearing as a face in the sky as he walks (Fig. 12). Feuer describes the musical’s dream sequences as “a kind of psychic cleansing process for the dreamer in the film which is immediately transferable to the narrative” (1993: 76). “Si Tard” offers a more restrained use of the convention, but it still works in the same way, with Ismaël imagining Julie’s response to him. The number reveals that despite his experiences with Erwann, Julie’s death still affects Ismaël.
Writing of musical dream sequences, Feuer implies that Hollywood musicals (and movies in general) present a false resolution of irresolvable social conflicts:
The experience of the film may provide an emotional catharsis or an escape for the viewer, as the dream does for the dreamer within the film. But when the musical also implies that dream ballets resolve the very real problems of the narrative, and by analogy, that movies fulfil our wishes in “real life,” the parallel between movies and life breaks down.… For genre films serve the culture by working through (in symbolic form) conflicts that can never really be resolved outside the cinema. (Feuer 1993: 76)
The traditional Hollywood musical ends with the formation of a heterosexual couple. As Babington and Evans write: “Whatever other meanings it has contained, the Hollywood musical has always highlighted the love story. From Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler to John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, successive couples have paired off before the final credits” (1985: 190). The musical resolves conflicts that one cannot resolve outside the cinema, including the promise of romantic monogamy. Yet Honoré made Les Chansons d’amour free from the legal and social conditions under which Hollywood studio musicals developed; his film is open about sexuality in a manner that reflects modern society.
Therefore, although Les Chansons d’amour ends with the formation of a couple, it is one in which both partners are men. One could argue, however, that the film repeats the utopian promise of traditional musicals. The narrative follows Erwann’s desire for Ismaël while the latter is still processing his grief for Julie. The film presents Erwann’s desire as normal; nothing indicates that homosexual desire is problematic. A new relationship is problematic for Ismaël because he is still grieving, rather than because it is with another man. Erwann’s problem is his infatuation with a grief-stricken man who is ten years older than him, rather than his sexuality. The “Si Tard” number offers a psychic release for Ismaël. He imagines Julie’s response to his late visit to her grave and his night with Erwann. Following this, Ismaël gets drunk; then, Alice takes him to Erwann. The film ends with Ismaël and Erwann embracing (Fig. 13). But the resolution is precarious, as Honoré notes:
It was important to me not to have a happy ending – I have them kissing, but they’re on a ledge. And Ismaël has the foresight to see that the boy who loves him is seventeen, and at seventeen you could be madly in love, but only for a week. (Orange 2008)
The ending is optimistic because it suggests that Ismaël is on the road to recovery regardless of whether Erwann and Ismaël have a long relationship ahead of them (Fig. 14). The musical gear-shift at the film’s end also implies a retreat from the intensity of a transient passion, moving from the quick hard sound of Beaupain’s guitar-driven “J’ai cru entendre” to Barbara’s light phrasing in “Ce matin là” during the end credits.
“La Bastille” is distinctive because it comprises five soliloquies from the five family members. Compressing several hours into a few minutes, the song expresses shared emotions, replaces dialogue scenes, indicates Julie’s hasty departure (followed by Jeanne), shows the younger sister Jasmine’s (Alice Butaud) Sunday afternoon reading, and reveals the parents going to bed later that night. Each person sings their thoughts, externalises their intimate feelings; the characters’ singing separates them, but the song unites them. Indeed, “La Bastille” achieves a powerful sense of integration, each person contributing to the song, expressing their feelings separately yet coming together in the force of their sentiment. The characters hear each other singing (for example, Jeanne and the mother hear Julie sing in the kitchen [Fig.15]), while Jeanne sings to Julie as she walks her to the metro (Fig. 16), and the mother sings to her husband and Jasmine that night (Fig. 17). All of them sing softly, but their voices’ varying timbres bring texture to the song; the father’s entrance into the song is affecting in part because of the unexpectedness of his entrance into the song and in part because the actor, Jean-Marie Winling, has an expressive tenor voice (Fig. 18).
“La Bastille” conveys the melancholy of a wet Sunday afternoon, after a family lunch is over and everyone is thinking about going back to work on Monday. The whole family sings about the rain, weather that exacerbates the mood of restlessness and claustrophobia of a post-Sunday lunch afternoon. Yet although the song expresses melancholy, it is also about family contentment, especially that of the parents, who at this point have no reason to worry about Julie. Their expressions indicate their happiness, with their family and their three daughters. Though both Julie’s and Jeanne’s singing is melancholy, the mother’s singing is joyful; she smiles at her husband and daughter as she sings to them. The song unites the family in their expression of ordinary Sunday afternoon feelings, and it brings them together for one last time before Julie’s death; she will die that evening. When Julie slams the door, her father gets up to look for her, disturbed by the sound of the door closing. The moment hints at some cause for alarm. Her hasty departure without saying goodbye is a plausible expression of her bad temper, caused by the mixture of her frustrations with Ismaël and her family’s warm welcoming of him. The sentiment of the song may appear overdone, yet the father and Jeanne’s sung farewells take on additional resonances on repeat viewings. They both sing the same lyrics: “I’d love you till goodbye/In this rain and all it brings.” Jeanne does so as she walks Julie to the station, holding an umbrella for them in the rain (Fig. 19). After Julie has descended into the metro, with all the conventional associations of descents into the ground, Jeanne turns back to look toward the station and the song ends.
Like “La Bastille,” “Delta Charlie Delta” compresses a longer period into a few minutes. It begins as Ismaël leaves the police station and walks home, carrying a plastic bag with Julie’s white coat and blue dress inside it (Fig. 20). It is a grey day, rain turning to sleet. At the end of the first verse, Ismaël phones Julie’s father (Fig. 21). There is a shot of him answering the phone in bed, his wife next to him (Fig. 22). All we hear of the conversation is Ismaël identifying himself. Ismaël’s voice is singing on the soundtrack, but the piano pauses between verses as Ismaël says: “C’est Ismaël.” As well as Ismaël’s speaking voice, the film includes background traffic noises and the sound of the father’s telephone ringing during the shot of him waking to its sound. Ismaël then sings “It’s all dust to dust” while there is a close shot of Julie’s father receiving the news. Unlike the film’s other songs, “Delta Charlie Delta” is sung from outside the fictional world. The song expresses his shock, but Ismaël sings on the soundtrack as if his singing is a voice-over, while the images depict his walk home in the rain and his partial collapse on the pavement (Fig. 23).
One consequence of the decision to have Ismaël sing off-screen is that it enables Honoré to compress several events into the song’s three-and-a-half-minute duration. The black-and-white photographs, for example, are an expressive means of cutting forward in time, incorporating more than just the immediate impact of Julie’s death. Part of this number presents Ismaël’s instant reaction to Julie’s death; part of it presents later reactions, such as those of Julie’s family at her funeral. This number exemplifies Beaupain and Honoré’s achievement, with the integration of Ismaël’s phone call to Julie’s father a particularly effective decision. The same principle guides both the interjection and the use of the black-and-white photographs; the soundtrack continues to represent the fictional world, while the photographs interrupt the narrative sequence. The first few black-and-white photographs are of Julie on the ground (Fig. 24) and in the ambulance (Fig. 25), with the paramedics trying to resuscitate her. Then, during “Delta Charlie Delta” there are photographs of a distraught Jeanne (Fig. 26), of Julie’s parents with Ismaël inside the morgue (Fig. 27), and of the funeral (Fig. 28). The last photograph is of Jasmine’s book (Henri Michaux’s The Night Stirs) (Fig. 29). As well as compressing narrative events, the black-and-white photographs add an impression of documentary reportage, as if representing snapshots of real life.
“Delta Charlie Delta” conveys the sudden shock of Julie’s death. She is a major character, played by a film star, and the film refrains from warning us that this is going to happen. The structure of the song derives from the police code for a death, the blunt shorthand of “Delta Charlie Delta” echoed in the tune and chorus. The repeating piano chords, the four-four tempo, and the quasi-blues tones give intensity and urgency, strengthening the number’s expression of Ismaël’s feelings. He sings about the police code because those are the words that first confirm Julie’s death. Yet although the song is inspired by the policeman’s radio message and follows straight on from Julie’s death, “Delta Charlie Delta” condenses several events into an indeterminate period: the immediate morning after; the parents and Ismaël looking at Julie’s body in the morgue; the funeral, days or weeks later; and Alice upset in a taxi. What is true of the song is also true of the whole film, which never confirms the story’s duration. Intertitles indicate the story’s three parts (departure, absence, and return), but the film leaves ambiguous the period covered, never clarifying how much time elapses between Julie’s death and Ismaël’s getting together with Erwann. That ambiguity about the period shown by the whole film prevents easy judgment of Ismaël.
Honoré and Beaupain both appear in cameos that associate them with Julie’s death. Beaupain performs in the nightclub that Julie, Ismaël, and Alice visit, outside of which Julie dies (Fig. 30). He sings “Brooklyn Bridge” on stage, the only song that is done as an on-stage performance within the fictional world. The scene includes an anonymous spectator calling out Beaupain’s name and close-ups of Beaupain as he sings, particularly when he sings the line “Like a joyful child” after Julie leaves. Honoré associates himself with the aftermath of Julie’s death by shaking Ismaël’s hand outside the synagogue, where, presumably, Ismaël has been for support (Fig. 31). (The synagogue appears to confirm Alice’s earlier comment to Ismaël that he is half Jewish.) By shaking the hand of the protagonist, Honoré associates himself with both Ismaël’s grief and the beginning of his recovery. Like Hitchcock’s cameos, Honoré’s and Beaupain’s cameos indicate a deliberate association of themselves with the film’s central dramatic event.4
The last number I will discuss is “Au Parc.” The piano introduction to “Au Parc” begins when Jeanne is left standing on the street, holding her dog, shouting at Ismaël as he walks away from her (Fig. 32). There is a cut to a shot of the carousel in the park, bare branches in the foreground of the shot and frost visible on the ground (Fig. 33). Jeanne sings the first verse:
The same winter sun
The same snapping twigs
Frost on the railings
The same smell of soil
Of earth gone to earth
It’ll all be there
Except for you
After the first line, the film cuts to a shot of some children playing on the ground beneath a leafless tree with long spindly branches (Fig. 34). The camera pans left (Fig. 35), following one child and his mother as they walk along the path (Fig. 36), passing close to the camera as it pans (Fig. 37). After this pan, the film cuts to a flock of birds taking off from treetops (Fig. 38), with the camera following the flying birds to the right, before cutting to a shot of Jeanne leaning against the tree singing (Fig. 39). Like the shot of the motorcyclist inserted into “L’Inventaire” or the shots of the passers-by with umbrellas in “La Bastille,” the shot of the birds in “Au Parc” injects realism into the number.
As Jeanne begins to sing the chorus, the camera moves toward her (Fig. 40):
The Pépinière Park at the week’s end
One more hour, one more hour, if that
One more hour before nightfall
Jeanne sings the next verse with the camera continuing to approach her:
The same temperature
Down to freezing point
At the gates of the zoo
The same hurried parents
Their children wrapped up warm
It’ll all be there
It’ll all be there
Except for you
As the camera closes in on Jeanne, it reveals that she is looking straight at us (Fig. 41). When she begins the second chorus, she is framed in a medium long shot, the line of trees stretching out behind her along the path. She sings the next verse, alternating looking at the camera and looking down or off to the right. As she sings the last line of the third verse, “Except for you,” she is framed in a medium shot looking right into the camera throughout (Fig. 42). She sings the last chorus in a close-up, looking at the camera. However, this time she sings an additional line after “Encore une heure de jour et la nuit vient (One more hour before nightfall),” which is “Et puis … rien (And then … nothing more)” (Fig. 43). After she sings the last line, she looks down and the film cuts to a frontal shot of the path with trees on either side receding into the distance (Fig. 44). The music concludes and church bells chime.
The film prepares for this number narratively and musically. Narratively, the film establishes that Pépinière Park holds a special attraction for Jeanne. She refers to it during the second family lunch, which takes place after Julie’s death. The first line of the lunch scene is Jeanne’s comment that she has taken the family dog for a walk in Pépinière Park: “I hadn’t been back there since Julie died.” She reminds her mother: “It was our park. You took us there when we were kids.” Her return to Pépinière Park hints that Jeanne is beginning to recover. Musically, the film sets the number up by using an instrumental version of “Au Parc” twice before. It is first used during the opening credit sequence, which introduces Julie walking along the street as she goes to the cinema. It ends with an overhead shot of her just before the intertitle announces the first part. The second use of this music occurs during the scene when Ismaël returns to his flat and finds Jeanne there. The piano music starts when she asks him for a light. Following this, he touches her cheek, as if expressing empathy, but then stands up to leave, saying: “Sorry, I can’t go on like this; I just can’t. I’m not interested. It doesn’t help.”
As with “La Bastille” and “Delta Charlie Delta,” the lyrics, music, and vocal performance of “Au Parc” externalise the internal. The lyrics evoke Jeanne’s experience of the park now, compared with her memories of sharing it with her sister when they were younger. She sings of “The same winter sun,” “the same snapping twigs,” “the same smell of soil,” and “the same hurried parents.” She sings of walking where she walked with her sister, “at the same time of day.” And her chorus repeats “It’ll all be there/Except for you.” Jeanne performs to the camera, addressing us, her audience, but the lyrics speak to the dead Julie, imagine that her sister hears her mournful lament. As she sings, Jeanne alternates gazing at the ground and looking at the approaching camera. She sighs as she sings, weary and sad. Her singing is in a narrow register and, at some points, is more like a soft speaking. Mastroianni’s intimate vocal performance, delivered in direct address, evokes the character’s fragility and grief.
Jeanne is the only member of Julie’s family to get a number to herself. And besides Ismaël’s grief, it is Jeanne’s grief that the film expresses fully. The staging of the number increases the song’s impact, so that a complex effect is created by the combination of images, music, and narrative, with the scene’s visual elements reinforcing the song’s aural qualities. These include the lights of the carousel, the wintry colours, the spindly bare branches, grey path, dark clothes, Jeanne’s light blue scarf, the grey light, and the regular spacing of the park’s trees and path. The whole film takes place during winter, but set amongst the bare trees this scene foregrounds the season. The pale lighting is grey-blue. The ground looks frosty. Everyone wears warm clothes. The trees have shed their leaves. Their branches form a screen in the first shot and hang over the children in the second shot. Everything looks cold, dormant.
When the camera approaches Jeanne, the line of trees gives perspective to the shot; apart from a passing couple, no one else is visible. As a result, the framing intensifies the isolation expressed by the song. Furthermore, the scene begins by showing a mother and her child. The placement of the mother and child emphasises the park’s association with Jeanne and Julie’s childhood. Once one knows this shot is going to end up by showing Jeanne, the significance of the staging becomes apparent: the carousel alludes to childhood; the mother and child recollect Jeanne’s comment about remembering her childhood visits to this park with Julie.5 The staging suggests that Jeanne’s song about the park evolves from her reaction to the mother and child. The scene is an excellent example of the way that Honoré’s staging and filming (mother and child, carousel, wintry park) interact with the number. Furthermore, the fact that the film uses the instrumental version of “Au Parc” in the credit sequence and when Jeanne tries to talk to Ismaël means that the reprised sung version functions as a conclusion, especially as this is the last time the film shows Jeanne.
Les Chansons d’amour is unusual because of the realism of its characters, setting, and story; the film has little dance and no big production numbers, but it is a musical. The film needs its songs to exist. Moreover, as a musical, Les Chansons d’amour draws on several conventions of the traditional Hollywood musical. Honoré and Beaupain adapt these conventions with more care than may be apparent on a single viewing. The result is that their film is a moving musical drama, short, simple, with a straightforward narrative, believable characters, and fourteen numbers that develop the narrative and the characters’ psychology. There is no counterpoint between narrative and numbers; the songs have a coherent expressive function, serving rather than subverting a poignant narrative that presents a psychologically intimate portrait of grief and desire mixing together in the aftermath of a sudden death.
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Cléder, Jean, and Timothée Picard (eds) (2014). Christophe Honoré: le cinéma nous inachève. Lormont: Editions Le Borde de l’eau.
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Conway, Kelley (2004). Chanteuse in the City: The Realist Singer in French Film. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Daniellou, Simon (2014). “La cinéphilie comme contemporanéité dans le cinéma de Christophe Honoré,” in Cléder, Jean, and Timothée Picard (eds) (2014). Christophe Honoré: le cinéma nous inachève. Lormont: Editions Le Borde de l’eau, 33-47.
Feuer, Jane (1993). The Hollywood Musical, Second Edition. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Gerstner, David A. (2010). “Christophe Honoré’s Les Chansons d’amour and the Musical’s Queer-abilities,” in Cohan, Steven (ed). The Sound of Musicals. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 188-199.
Gerstner, David A., and Julien Nahmias (2015). Christophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Mast, Gerald (1987). Can’t Help Singing: The American Musical on Stage and Screen. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
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Orange, Michelle (2008). “Talking with Christophe Honoré and Louis Garrel.” Village Voice, 18 March. Online. https://www.villagevoice.com/2008/03/18/talking-with-christopher-honor-and-louis-garrel/ (Accessed: 20 July 2017).
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Vanderschelden, Isabelle (2010). “The “Beautiful People” of Christophe Honoré: New Wave Legacies and New Directions in French Auteur Cinema.” Studies in European Cinema 7:2, December, 135-148.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.
- Perhaps Julie wanted a child: after the first family lunch, Ismaël pretends to cradle a baby (a cushion). Julie’s family laugh, but Julie looks annoyed. [↩]
- In the same interview, the interviewer describes it as “a musical set in Paris” (2008). [↩]
- First published in 1982, Feuer’s book was republished in 1993 with a new chapter (1993: 123-145) on the “teen musical,” in which she considers 1980s musicals influenced by pop videos after the launching of MTV in 1981. Feuer begins the second edition of her book on the Hollywood musical by asking if the genre is “moribund” (1993: xi). As she admits, her answer depends on “how one conceptualises MTV and the rebirth of the teenpic/teen musical” (1993: xi). [↩]
- Honoré discusses the loss that influenced Beaupain and himself when making the film (Cléder and Picard 2014: 138). Daniellou (2014: 38) compares Honoré’s cameo with François Truffaut’s cameo in Les 400 Coups (1959). [↩]
- Gerstner and Nahmias (2015: 119) also note the children in this scene. [↩]