Tender Is the Heart

BY GARY M. KRAMER | Christophe Honoré's “Love Songs” is a poignant meditation on grief and how love – of both the hetero and homo varieties – can helps ease suffering. And it's a musical. “Love Songs” is a bold and ambitious film, and it is one that is also incredibly heartfelt and moving.

Honoré claims to have made “a 21st century romance/homage to the New Wave musicals of Jacques Demy.” This is apparent from the fact that the film's lovers are a threesome – Ismaël (Louis Garrel), Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), and Alice (Clotilde Hesme). Ismaël and Julie have been together for a while, and have only recently invited Alice, Ismaël's co-worker, into their relationship. There is a cute bedroom scene in which the two women undress together and the three lovers shift positions as they read different books in bed.

Christophe Honoré offers loving tribute to Jacques Demy musicals

Still, Julie soon tells her sister and mother that she is unhappy with the ménage a trois.

Ironically, the three of hearts end their affair when Alice meets Gwendal (Yannick Renier) at a nightclub. That same evening, Julie dies suddenly. Ismaël is bereft. Julie's sister Jeanne (Chiara Mastroianni) wants to share his loss, but Ismaël prefers to grieve alone. His coping, however, takes a sudden turn when Gwendal's adorable gay brother, Erwann (Grègoire Leprince-Ringuet), develops a crush on Ismaël, and pursues him.

“Love Songs” features all of the actors singing portions of their roles, letting the music and lyrics reveal what they are thinking and saying much like Demy's “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” did more than 40 years ago. The actors walk down the streets of Paris, or perform a duet into their cell phones with gusto. It is all amusing and enjoyable, even when they are singing about loss.

Perhaps it is the realism of these unreal moments that makes it all so pleasing, but there is an emotional pull to the characters – especially when Jeanne sings about a park that reminds her of her sister. While most of the dozen-plus songs are ballads, the emotions of each strike a warm, genuine note.

Honoré also plays with narrative using other devices, such as still photos – particularly as Julie is taken away by an ambulance. These New Wave techniques consistently enhance the film, and are never distracting.

“Love Songs” also boasts a remarkable credit sequence and the story is divided into three parts — “The Departure,” “The Absence,” and “The Return” – each relating to love.

If “Love Songs” tackles a heavy issue – what is the appropriate response in coping with sudden death? – Honoré's buoyant approach will charm most audiences. That said, there are probably some viewers bound to find this entire enterprise pretentious.

Ismaël's encounters with Julie are very affecting, but it is the relationship that develops between Ismaël and Erwann that is most delightful. Although it may be somewhat unbelievable that Ismaël can transform himself from a man living with two women into a tender relationship with a boy still in his teens, such is the magic of the film. Honoré celebrates all kinds of love here, making no excuses for what the heart wants.

“Love Songs” features winning performances from its entire cast. Louis Garrel nicely balances his playfulness with his seriousness. Scenes of him pulling faces at Julie's family dinner table and doing puppetry while washing dishes are entertaining. These moments show what a happy-go-lucky guy he is before tragedy strikes. Honoré, who has previously directed the actor in “Ma Mere” and “Dans Paris,” seems to get the best out of him here.

In support, Ludivine Sangier makes a terrific impression in her brief screen time, and Chiara Mastroianni is particularly good as Julie's mournful sister.

But it is the irresistible Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet who steals the film as Erwann. His performance is so relaxed and natural it is no wonder that Ismaël falls in love with him — even if Erwann is in many ways a stalker. Just watching Leprice-Ringuet smile during an embrace is as touching as when his character asks Ismaël, “Do you have no doubts? Don't you need anyone?” as a way of working himself into a closed-off heart.

“Love Songs” is infectious in this way. The film is not without its sad moments – Ismaël sings of crying – but it is consistently endearing.