Christophe Honoré, Love Songs
Occasionally a filmmaker comes along who truly remind us why we love cinema. Christophe Honoré is not only one of those people, but also finds multiple other ways of expressing his seemingly endless creativity. He was born in Finistere (literally “The end of the world”), a small town in Brittany, France, and attended the University of Rennes, where he studied literature and film. In 1995, he moved to Paris where he began reviewing for the legendary Cahiers du Cinéma while writing both plays and children’s books. His first book of young fiction, Tout contre Léo (1995), tackled the tough subject of children born with HIV, and Honoré has shown a similarly unflinching approach in his adult novels which deal with incest, suicide and AIDS. Since 1995, he has written 12 children’s books, four novels, four plays and four screenplays for other directors. He made his debut as a writer-director in 2002 with 17 Times Cécile Cassard but it was his audacious adaptation of Georges Bataille’s Ma Mère (2004), featuring Isabelle Huppert as Louis Garrel’s hedonistic mother, that first attracted international attention. Honoré’s follow-up, the unconventional family drama Dans Paris (2006), was redolent of the French New Wave in its bold, loose approach and demonstrated the extent of the auteur’s potential.
Honoré’s latest film, Love Songs, is a companion piece to Dans Paris in which he returns to the themes of love and grief as seen through the eyes of young Parisian men, and once again stylistically references the Nouvelle Vague–and it’s a musical. Based around the songs of Honoré’s regular composer Alex Beaupain, Love Songs begins by introducing three carefree lovers, Ismaël (Louis Garrel, in his third consecutive movie for Honoré), his girlfriend Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme), who has recently become their bedfellow. From this light, bawdy start the film takes an unexpected turn as Honoré pushes the musical genre to an unusually dark and somber place, combining poppy ballads with realism and a deeply serious and emotionally intense plot. A musical fused to the ideas and audacities of the French New Wave, teh resulting film utterly revitalizes the genre and gives one hope that cinema as a fluid, malleable and evolving art form is far from dead.
Filmmaker spoke to Honoré about reinvigorating the musical, his thoughts on Sarko L’Americain, and how he and Wes Anderson are both still really nine-and-a-half year olds.
Filmmaker: What were your reasons for interpreting the musical genre in this way?
Honoré: There are two reasons for the film, really. One is my friendship with the composer Alex Beaupain, which I’ve had for many, many years. He did the music for all my movies and also has a parallel career as a singer-songwriter in France. Since we’re very, very good friends, we’ve lived through a lot of things together in the 20 years that we’ve known each other. One thing that happened that was extremely unpleasant was the disappearance of a female friend of ours who we were very close with. So we really wanted to turn that event into a sort of a happy grief, and that propelled us towards wanting to make this movie. So that’s the personal reason for the film, and the second is that as an adolescent and a cinephile, probably the first filmmaker that I focused on was Jacques Demy. I am from Brittany and he was from Nantes, and my grandmother lived in Nantes. So when I would go and stay with her during the summer, I would make a pilgrimage to all the locations where he had shot his films. He was always like an imaginary godfather for me. After that, I started to work at Cahiers du Cinema and I took as a pseudonym the name of one of Jacques Demy’s characters, Roland Cassard. And then I did my first film, which is called 17 Times Cécile Cassard, and [in it] I asked Romain Duris to sing a song that Anouk Aimée sang in Lola. So I was trying to find a way to not do a film in the style of Jacques Demy, but do a musical comedy in France in my own style.
Filmmaker: The roots of the movie seem to be in the scene in Dans Paris where Romain Duris sings to his ex-lover on the phone. Was that consciously a preparation for this movie?
Honoré: It was like a preparation. Alex and I talked a long time ago about Love Songs, and in Dans Paris I wanted to try a sequence with a song so I asked Romain to sing. Romain is a very, very bad singer [laughs] and it was very difficult for him, but at the end I thought the sequence was a good one, one of the best in the film. Dans Paris had a lot of success in France so it gave me the courage to compose Love Songs.
Filmmaker: How was it fashioning a narrative around existing songs?
Honoré: Since it was a very personal story, I didn’t have to invent a plot. The story is what happened and Alex had already written songs about the event that he sang solo in concert. So first I did an adaptive process to turn the songs into duets or three-part songs, then I wrote the screenplay and after that I worked with Alex and changed certain dialogue sequences into song.
Filmmaker: How different was the process of directing a musical from your previous experiences?
Honoré: It’s true that the musical comedy genre has very rigid technical demands, the main one being that we had to record the songs in a studio prior to the shoot. In the studio, I had to direct the actors, who didn’t know at all what was going to be happening on set. So it forced me to look ahead and make sure that the song sequences were much more rigorously prepared than the other scenes in the film. Then all the work during the shoot when we were doing playbacks was to bring life back into something that was already too set.
Filmmaker: How important was it for you to make this a realistic film?
Honoré: It was one of the biggest differences between this movie and the movies of Jacques Demy. All of Jacques Demy’s movies are some kind of tribute to Broadway musicals and his way of directing is very theatrical: he’s always in front of his actors and he wants to metamorphose reality into something else. So even if he is one of the members of the New Wave, when he shot outside in the street he painted all the walls pink. For me, it’s very, very different because I want to place the film in a real reality. I was very, very cautious about the film being kitsch, because it’s a thin line between tragedy and kitsch. One of the things that I thought was important today was to get rid of that sort of Broadway theatricality — because it’s not normal behavior when people are singing — but to place them in a setting where everything else is going on normally, even if they’re singing. The way this was conceived was that the characters start to sing when they really can’t express their emotions, so in Love Songs you can think of it almost as if it’s an offstage voice that comes in to to help the characters.
Filmmaker: You’ve described this movie as a romantic comedy, but there are darker and more tragic aspects.
Honoré: There was a real drive to have something about the pop spirit in there, where you talk about serious things with lightness. The grave, heavy side of the film really ties into some very personal issues for me, so I know that I’m not creating something that’s cotton candy. When the film came out in France, people really appropriated it and I realized that the film had something that was sentimentally extremely generous. That’s always something of a misunderstanding, but on the other hand I really don’t look down on it at all and really don’t have an opinion on it.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a desire in your recent films to break or rewrite the rules of cinema, which again leads us back to the Nouvelle Vague.
Honoré: I’m not sure if people see it so much from the outside, but in France I think there is such a strong return to academia and what is considered classic cinematic structures. It’s true that with my last two films I’ve really tried to put that pleasure at the core of my directing, to try things that are not necessarily forbidden but to try and deconstruct a little bit. I think that deconstructivism is one of the principles of modern cinema, art and literature. I know that post-modern perspective on the arts is frowned upon, but one of the things I like about it is the idea that cinema, paintings and literature contain the memory of other art that has preceded it. What really weighs on me is the amnesia of contemporary cinema.
Filmmaker: How conscious are you of building up an interconnected body of work? I ask because there’s almost a dialogue between Dans Paris and Love Songs: there are visual aspects and plotpoints that appear in both, as well as shared cast members.
Honoré: Already I’m aware that Ma Mère and 17 Times Cécile Cassard are two parts of one ensemble and there’s a real break between them and Dans Paris and Love Songs. It’s true that Dans Paris and Love Songs are variations on a common theme and I see them together and would say that they’re part of a trilogy because I just finished shooting another film this winter with Louis Garrel. In these three films there’s the wish to tackle three themes: a look at Paris, a look at French cinema, and a look at the sentimental portrait of youth. I have already the screenplay for my next film and so I know that I’ve now moved onto something else, and have left Paris to move back to Brittany.
Filmmaker: How does your other work — your novels, children’s books and plays — fit into your film career? Your writing career came first, but do you still want to keep that going in tandem with making movies?
Honoré: I don’t really know how it’s going to work out because it’s true that for the last three years I’ve done one film after another. It’s true that I’ve written children’s book but I haven’t had time for a new novel. I think filmmaking is such a physical activity and so I have to take advantage of it in the next ten years while I still have the chance. When I’m old and tired, I can become an old French writer in his bathrobe.
Filmmaker: When someone asks you at a party what your job is, what do you tell them?
Honoré: It’s funny that you ask me that questions because I’ve often been very embarrassed and confused with that. I used to not be able to say I was a writer because I thought it was pretentious, but now I don’t like to say I’m a filmmaker because the person asking me is probably a young actor and then it’s going to be difficult. The business card I take out most readily is the one that says “Writer of Children’s Books,” because it reassures everybody but doesn’t interest anyone. People then don’t bother me and, as I don’t like to be bothered, that works.
Filmmaker: What are your thoughts on contemporary American cinema?
Honoré: I have a lot of admiration for certain American directors, but I’m particularly influenced by American literature in my films. Bret Easton Ellis was a big influence on my adaptation of Bataille’s Ma Mère, and Dans Paris was a clandestine adaptation of Franny and Zooey by Salinger. But the American directors I like today are people like Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson is someone I admire a lot. We have something very important in common: Wes Anderson and I remember really well what it’s like to be nine and a half, and it’s through that perspective that everything is viewed. I admit that my nine-and-a-half year marking point has more of an influence on my children’s books but I sense that it will also be seen in my filmmaking.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Honoré: I think the first film I saw was one that my parents took me to called The War of the Buttons. It’s about a war between groups of children in a little village, and there’s a scene where all the children are naked in the woods and I remember it as being a very erotic sequence. And I was much younger than nine and a half!
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Honoré: The Godfather, parts one, two and three. I really like Part III. It’s not my favorite, but for me Coppola is one of the biggest. When I walk around and look at my camera angles, to look at a Coppola sequence is always a lesson.
Filmmaker: Should actors sing and singers act?
Honoré: In France there are a lots of actors, and particularly actresses, who sing and make albums that are pretty unbearable to listen to. It’s pretty embarrassing. And singers who act is not really a French tradition. I wouldn’t mind putting Justin Timberlake in one of my movies. I didn’t think he was too bad in Alpha Dog.
Filmmaker: And what do you think about supermodels who make records, one in particular…
Honoré: It’s a little hard for us because in the heart of Paris we’re so ashamed of this president who weighs upon me with his crudeness and stupidity. After a Rolex watch, he gets a model wife. The only reason I know about [Sarkozy’s new wife, Carla Bruni, making albums] is because Louis [Garrel] is dating her sister, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. It could be a joke and we could make fun of it but actually I think it’s very serious for France, like it is with Bush in America.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the biggest compliment you ever received?
Honoré: It was a Sunday night in Cannes at 11 o’clock at night. I got a call on my cell phone from a number I didn’t recognize, so I didn’t answer. When I listened to the message I found out it was Catherine Deneuve, who had just seen Love Songs. She said very, very nice things about the film.