There’s a song in the heart, and on the lips, of Ismaël (Garrel), the impossibly handsome hero of Christophe Honoré’s new film. Since he’s involved in a highly photogenic ménage à trois, you can’t blame him—or his equally lucky partners, Julie (Sagnier) and Alice (Hesme)—for bursting into impromptu tunes. Once the love triangle suffers the tragic loss of a corner, however, the remaining two use the movie’s musical interludes to express deep grief rather than a lust for life. Only a fourth character, a lad (Leprince-Ringuet) who pines for Ismaël, can croon about something other than sadness, and his desire for a physical duet may be what saves our mourning friend from despair.
As a vehicle for Garrel, Love Songs hits the right notes; whether clowning around with crudely fashioned puppets or breathing sorrow into Alex Beaupain’s police-code dirge (“Delta Charlie Delta”), the actor invigorates every moment he’s onscreen. As a modern popera, however, the movie comes alive only in spurts. Though Honoré pays homage to a number of French New Wave forefathers, the central object of his tribute is fellow Breton Jacques Demy, whose blend of realism and pop-melodic fantasy is the obvious antecedent. All these Nouvelle Vague allusions come on like coy affectations by the end, however, and Honoré’s Demy-glazed attempt to stage a contemporary romantic musical rarely attains the genre’s giddy heights or sense of genuine catharsis. Even its final image of love attained is gorgeous yet hollow.