The Third Mind of Christophe Honore

By Lee Hill

les-chanson-damour-christophe-honore.jpgLes Chansons d’Amour, 2007

So much recent French cinema has striven to carve out an identity apart from the 60s and 70s nouvelle vague that Christophe Honore’s unapologetic embrace of those traditions (or anti-traditions) seems by turns quixotic, perverse and inspiring. At the age of 37, Honore has not only quickly gained prominence as an auteur sharing the preoccupations of art, love and death prominent in the work of Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Demy and Jean Eustache, but is also a novelist, children’s book writer and screenwriter for hire. With his fourth and most recent feature, Chansons D’Amour, Honore has reworked his influences in a novel and ambitious manner to create a film that is by turns beguiling, lyric, profound, trite, opaque, precise, infuriating, and yet never less than fascinating. There are many moments in Honore’s films when his reach exceeds his grasp, but it is that same unwieldy ambition that makes Honore more than this year’s young turk, but someone who is coming close to breaking through to the kind of intellectual and emotive power found in Jules et Jim, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Mother and The Whore.

Honore’s first feature, Seventeen Times Cecile Cassard (2001), starring Beatrice Dalle as a widow trying to rebuild her life and care for a young child, has set much of the pattern of critical response to his films. Acknowledging the formal beauty of the film, many felt the execution prompted unfavourable comparisons to Kryzstof Kieslowski’s Blue. A less brave filmmaker might have responded to this muted reception with something that would meet both critics and audiences half way, but instead Honore delivered a defiantly transgressive adaptation of George Bataille’s unfinished novel, Ma Mère. Best known for such erotic novels of ideas as Blue of Noon and Story of the Eye, Bataille’s works are the kind of near unfilmable projects that seduce maverick directors.

Set on the Canary Islands, where full time hedonists, bourgeois tourists and seen-it-all locals intermingle, the film foregrounds Honore’s preoccupation with love triangles. Louis Garrel, the son of the director Philippe Garrel, plays Pierre, the 17 year old son of Helene (Isabelle Huppert) and the unnamed father (Philippe Duclos), who makes a holiday visit after a long absence from home. It is clear from a few brief snatches of dialogues that the father’s marriage to Helene long ago entered a terminal phase of decadence, ennui and indifference from which neither spouse seems to have had sufficient energy or motivation to depart from. His sudden death is a mere ripple of grief in a familial universe where any sense of physical or emotional boundaries between parent, spouse or child has long ago collapsed.

ma-mere-christophe-honore-2.jpgMa Mère, 2004

After an all too brief period of mourning, Helene resumes flirting (and often sleeping) with men and women of all ages and frequenting the lifeless bars and discos near the chic family home complete with pool and spacious bedrooms. The most stable relationship in the film is expressed by the two loyal family servants who watch Helene and Pierre self-destruct with a mix of quiet horror and disgust. With Pierre back on the scene, mother and son embark on an incestuous dance towards oblivion complicated by Pierre’s simultaneous relationship with Hansi (Emma de Caunes), a teenager chosen by Helene to be both her sexual pawn and son’s lover.

On paper, the plot is the stuff of soft porn, but on screen, the baroque sexual activity is depicted in a languid, episodic fashion. That listless passivity is mirrored by several night time scenes of mother and son lost in the restless crowds walking to and from one cavernous bar/disco to another. The film reaches a chilling stage where Pierre and Hansi imprison and torture a compliant local boy followed by an apocalyptic denouement that reaffirms Bataille’s preoccupations with the notion of ritual sacrifice and de Sade-like physical catharsis.

Ma Mère is a problematic study of a broken family unit pushing itself to extremes. As with Bataille’s novels, any back story of consequence is fragmented or elliptical. As viewers, we are so often reduced to the same level of thoughtless passivity as the characters that we cease to really care what pushed this particular family over the edge. What redeems the film is yet another seamless, near aria-like performance by Huppert, who once again manages to make breathe conviction into an enigmatic and unsympathetic role and also making us forget her status as arthouse star. Garrel is a less versatile actor, but his moody good looks are well suited to a the role of a son who one senses longs for more traditional connection from his mother and friends, but has no firsthand experience of any values beyond mere sensation.

les-chanson-damour-christophe-honore-4.jpgLes Chansons d’Amour, 2007

In his next film, Dans Paris (2006), Honore manages to move away from the gloom of Ma Mère with a love letter to the City of Light. Dans Paris is no glib valentine to the complications of love in what is arguably the most romantic city in the world. Garrel returns as Jonathan, the younger brother of Paul (Romain Duris), who is unsuccessfully trying to juggle a relationship in the suburbs with an affair in Paris. A shared flat in Paris becomes both a battleground and sanctuary for the brothers as they deal with the respective women in their lives. Both Jonathan and Paul are clearly the children of the children of 1968 – clued into the need for individual happiness and self-expression, but also overwhelmed by how such values make it difficult to make others happy or to simply communicate without complicating life further.

With its autumnal colour scheme and Godardian jump cuts, Dans Paris is the kind of French film most English speaking viewers warm to. It manages to depict the complicated love lives of Jonathan and Paul with sympathy and detachment. Painful lessons are learned, but neither hope nor idealism are shattered by the experience. In contrast to the psychosexual dead zone of Ma Mère, the low budget bohemia of Dans Paris seems like the work of a less dogmatic and more mature director.

dans-paris-chirstophe-honore.jpgDans Paris, 2006

In Chansons D’Amour, Honore is the provocateur once again – bravely venturing into the kind of genre bending (and gender questioning) territory that even a master like Jacques Demy could screw up on occasion. It is almost impossible not to think of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Young Girls of Rochefort while watching Chansons D’Amour and not find Chansons D’Amour falling short on some levels. As sincere and heartfelt as the compositions of Alex Beaupain are, they do not come anywhere near the simplicity or grandeur of what Michel LeGrand achieved in its numerous collaborations with Demy. Only one track Delta Charlie Delta, which is played during the sudden death of twentysomething Julie (Ludivine Saginer) at a Paris music club, really comes close to the kind of cutting edge French pop best exemplified by Air (in fact, you almost wish they had done the soundtrack).

Broken into three discrete sections (“Le depart”, “le absence” and “le return”), the film explores the way in which Ismael (Louis Garrel) and Alice (Clothide Hesme) cope with the death of Julie, who was the most sensible and light hearted member of their love triangle. Whatever the film’s formal problems blending the musical with the melodrama and the film of ideas, Honore’s unusual ability (for a male director) to write and cast complex roles for women continues. Garrel, who has become Honore’s version of Jean-Pierre Leaud, is the kind of screen presence you can easily come to love or hate. His mix of brooding sensitivity and quirky humour is part of a long (and some might argue, wearying) film tradition of a young man’s maturation through love and tragedy. The character Garrel plays, for reasons that don’t quite make sense, discovers he is attracted to men and embraces the attentions of an enthusiastic slightly younger man. In narrative terms, the reactions of Alice or her sister (played with sublime efficiency by Chiara Mastroianni) make more dramatic sense.

les-chanson-damour-christophe-honore-3.jpgLes Chansons d’Amour, 2007 

However, the film, in spite of its murky plot points and erratic score, has an astonishing cumulative power. One can’t help but be moved by its exploration of how terrible it is for death to strike someone so young and how the loss will mark parents, brothers, sisters, lovers and close friends forever. Honore is not a director who defuses the serious emotions churned up by his films with the kind of flippant post-modern irony one associates with Douglas Coupland or Quentin Tarantino (whose career has reached a kind of po-mo nadir with Deathwatch).

Honore’s next film, Apres Lui, which is likely to screen at Cannes 2008, stars Catherine Deneuve as a woman who becomes involved with her son’s friend after her child dies suddenly. Whatever Apres Lui’s final merits, the presence of Deneuve alone will ensure that it is likely to be a film of ambition and depth. Honore is drawn to finding creative ways to depict the kind of crises that all of us have experienced on one level or another. As messy and excessive Honore’s films seem in places, there is nothing that isn’t sincere, probing or challenging about his methods. At a time, when such spontaneity or emotional intensity is so often diluted by spectacle for its own sake, genre conventions or commercial considerations, Honore’s quick rise to the A list of current French cinema is something to be cherished.

Lee Hill is a writer. He lives in London.