“On connait la chanson” July 1998

I recently realized that almost all of the music reviews I wrote for the Japan Times in the 90s and the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

01Though the themes have gotten weightier and the plots less linear, the one thing that never changes about musicals is the purpose of the songs, which is to clarify and intensify emotional touchstones in the story.

It was this concept that the late British writer Dennis Potter turned around in his classic four-part TV serial Pennies From Heaven. Potter had his characters lip-synch Depression-era pop songs, which were upbeat and optimistic, in order to contrast their own miserable circumstances in the real Depression. Rather than clarify emotions, the songs clarified the way the characters lied to themselves about their situations.

In his hommage to Potter, On connait la chanson (Same Old Song), director Alain Resnais uses French pop songs to comment on the characters’ lack of any realistic perspectives.

Much different in tone than Pennies, On connait wears its cynicism lightly. Conceived as a romantic roundelay, the script by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also wrote and starred in Cedric Klapisch’s comedy Une air de famille) is built on an underlying belief that true love is anything but true.

Jaoui plays Camille Lalande, a Paris tour guide who has spent seven years completing her history thesis. Odile (Sabine Azema), her voluble older sister, is a married career woman who doesn’t seem to realize that her husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi), has been rendered insensate by their marriage. Tired of their cramped apartment, she wants to move to a bigger one with a view of Montmartre.

Marc (Lambert Wilson), the real estate agent whom she enlists in her search, meets Camille instead of Odile when the latter is late for an appointment, and Camille is smitten. Unbeknownst to Camille, however, Marc’s subordinate, the kind but ineffectual Simon (Andre Dussolier), has already developed a crush on her, having become a regular on her historical tours.

Simon’s client is Nicolas (Bacri), who is looking for an apartment for himself and his wife (Jane Birkin) and who is an old flame of Odile’s, thus completing the circle of relationships.

The songs, which range from a 1931 recording of Josephine Baker’s “J’ai deux amours” to Telefon’s 1982 rock hit “Ca c’est vraiment toi,” pour out of the characters’ mouths from time to time. Birkin even gets to lip-synch her own 1985 hit, “Quoi.” Resnais doesn’t subject us to entire songs—sometimes a phrase is enough—and the character’s gender doesn’t always match that of the singer, since it’s the sentiment that counts.

The songs are only one of the devices used to show how these characters deceive themselves. Camille falls for Marc because he sees him crying and thinks he’s a sensitive type, though he’s simply suffering from an allergy. Actually, Marc is a petty tyrant and a boor, something that even a casual observer will realize after hearing one of his awful, cruel jokes.

Odile thinks Nicolas is cheating on his wife after she sees him escorting a young blonde into a hotel, and then, moments later, she sees Claude cuddling with a young woman in a parked car and tells herself that it is only someone who looks like him.

Sometimes, the self-deception has physiological consequences. After finally completing her thesis, Camille, having believed that once done with it she’d be happy, suffers from acute nausea, a sure sign of clinical depression. However, she denies that the source is psychological—and likely aggravated by her unconscious mistrust of Marc.

Nicolas, who experiences palpitations (he will not acknowledge that his marriage is through), consults doctor after doctor about his condition and each gives him a different diagnosis. During one interview, the doctor seems to drift farther away as his obfuscations become more obvious.

A hit in France, On connait la chanson is also the biggest money-maker in the 76-year-old director’s career, which most people identify with Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Connait is certainly more accessible than either of those two films, but it is hardly fluff. In a way, it is Resnais’s most subversive work. At the end, after most of the characters have been disabused of their illusions, they are already falling under the spell of new ones: A happy ending that points to new miseries. For a musical, what could be more radical?

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