Of all the relatively young European directors of the last few years, Christophe Honoré is probably the one with the most ambivalent, divisive and sadly underseen filmography. The peculiarity of this filmmaker is that the reaction to his movies, mostly positive in France and rather indifferent in the rest of the world, is often reduced to critics comparing him with old French cinema, some whining about the persistence of such passé filmmaking and some others lauding Honoré’s modern vision of the nouvelle vague. In short, Honoré is a young director who is divisive not because of controversial cinematic choices, but rather because he’s too enamored with the past and tries to bring it back at all costs. So what to make of this kid who wants to be an enfant terrible by looking at enfants terribles from fifty years ago? The answer lies perhaps in the way one looks at his movies. Too fond of their own bond with the past? Yes. Too explicit in the way that bond is formed? Sure. Manneristic in the most absurdly obvious way possible? Absolutely. But is all Mannerism bad? Not at all. It’s very difficult to call stale or repetitive – as some critics have done – this research of the glorious past of French filmmaking that, in Honoré, has the same erratic flavor that the original nouvelle vague had. There’s something lively, exciting, with a fluid quality, in the way the stylistic and emotional reality of nouvelle vague is brought back to life in the works of this strange auteur. He is, probably, the only director of the last twenty years who has managed to truly capture the fleeting quality of nouvelle vague, a quality that is both visual – the swift camera movements, the beautiful and ballet-like way the characters move – and thematic, in the way feelings, relationships and the primary concepts of life and death are explored.
And if all of that was true for Dans Paris and Ma mère, it is probably even more apparent and joyful to watch in Les chansons d’amour. As Louis Garrel effortlessly walks along the streets of Paris as a new Jean-Pierre Léaud (the resemblance is quite impressive), both careless and pensive at the same time, owning the world and yet fearful of being part of it, Les chansons d’amour tells a story that is almost irritating in its simplicity and captivating in its fluidity. Love, and by that I don’t necessarily mean romantic love, is taken for granted and then put at risk; it’s ridiculed and then elevated to something lyrical; it is lost forever and then found again unexpectedly. And it has the infinite and burlesque joy of nouvelle vague as three French kids walk around in the rain calling each other names at the sound of music; it has the deliciously spicy and sensual boldness of nouvelle vague as a ménage-a-trois is the starting point from which everything else takes form; it has the sorrowful passion of nouvelle vague as a woman remembers her dead sister and mourns her in song; it has the levity of nouvelle vague as a new love starts shaping up to a song that is sung through cellphones and accompanied by a graceful ballet that just happens, unplanned and gone in a moment. And it also has the sense of life of nouvelle vague, as ghosts are put aside and the living must learn how to get going, with our mournful hero abruptly interrupting the last song (and thus making it endless, beyond the ending credits) to finally accept that he is alive, mumbling his newfound command to his newfound lover: “Love me less, but love me for a long time.”
Mixing Godard’s images (the credits) and emotive realities (the complexity of male/female interaction) with everything that Jacques Demy did in his musicals, from the bright colors of some costumes to the famous “floating characters” who move fluently through the streets of a grey Paris, to the, again, fluent going back and forth between songs and dialogue, Honoré’s film is a love song (no pun intended) to nouvelle vague and, probably, to something deeper and more complex to explain. It is a love song to the political and artistic and moral truths and beliefs that nouvelle vague stood for. It is a song about love and the difficulty of communication, about the endless ways of caring for someone and the moral dilemmas that everyone, especially young people, face everyday. It is a song about loss and mourning and the incompatibility between people who apparently share everything, and a song about the fleeting quality of life itself and the impossibility to live it to its fullest and the sorrow that that brings, a song about living and loving and dreading what might happen, caring about it one moment and forgetting all about it the next, finding peace in mundane things and trying to forget, forgive and go on, or, on the contrary, trying to create bonds that may or may not hurt and may or may not bring happiness. It is, ultimately, existentialism in music. A song about possibilities, here one moment and gone the next, so that one has to be always ready to start anew while remembering the past, to accept the changes or face loss and loneliness. Which is, in my opinion, what nouvelle vague really tried to say. And how is that stale as a message?