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Alain Resnais is not only one of the most respected film directors from the French New Wave, but, in this writer's opinion, he is the most important one. His film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) showed us a different way to look at movies, and a completely revolutionary way to adapt a novel (written by Margaret Duras) to film. He followed that seminal piece of work with Last Year at Marienbad (1961), which once more proved Resnais to be a master of illusion.
But now, at age 77, this exceptional director decided to make On Connaît la Chanson (Same Old Song), a contemporary musical comedy from 1997 that is surprisingly distant from his classic masterpieces. What made Resnais treat such a light and frivolous theme, in which the musical score, written by the most famous French composers and sung by the most famous French singers, plays a more important role than the plot itself? It is clear that Resnais desired to discard his old intellectual approach in favor of a refreshing and iconoclast genre, part nostalgia and part mockery.
The plot focuses around six characters who, with existentialist anguish, wander around Paris looking for apartments or new love affairs. Odile (Sabine Azema) and Camille (Agnès Jaoui) are two sisters in search of happiness. Camille is a tour guide who just completed her doctoral thesis and has fallen in love with Marc (Lambert Wilson), a young real estate agent who is selling Odile an apartment with a "false" view of Paris. Simon (André Dussollier) is an older man and also Marc's employee, who is in love with Camille and makes her believe he is a writer for a radio station. To make a light story short: Marc tries to sell Odile the apartment while Camille develops panic attacks that are ruining her life, and Nicolas (Jean-Pierre Bacri), Odile's former boyfriend, comes searching for an apartment for his family and a doctor to cure his hypochondriac diseases.
The film really is about Paris. The characters walk around Paris and talk about Paris, but -- except for a museum chamber in the Louvre, some monuments, and a very distant view of Sacre Coeur (out of focus) -- Paris is hardly seen.
Resnais expresses his characters' needs and emotions with old French songs. In the middle of dialogue, the characters break out with a musical fragment, no more than a few seconds long, to reveal their interior desires, their lies and frustrations. Sometimes men dub women's voices and other times women dub men's. Sometimes the songs are classics from Edith Piaf or the love songs of Aznavour; other times they are pop songs such as those sung by Johnny Holliday and Jane Birkin.
Resnais's underlying wish may be deconstruction of the musical comedy, a sendup of Demis's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Or perhaps it is an ultimate attempt to launch a New Musical Wave. In any case the popular and nostalgic tone garnered French public success and a shower of Cesar Awards for director Resnais, original music score for Bruno Fontaine, and for sound and sound editing (Michel Klochendler, Jean-Pierre Laforce and Pierre Lenoir).
In spite of its great success in France, the big problem with this musical drama is that American audiences don't know most of the songs, no matter how old and worshiped they may be in France. Imagine Sean Connery lip-synching "Lady Sings the Blues" in the voice of Billie Holiday, or Winona Ryder singing "Old Man River" in the voice of Paul Robeson. It may sound great, but then again ...
Not knowing that Resnais is the film director, it's possible to doubt the film's effectiveness. But once you know it's his work, what seems to be simply rare becomes wonderful. And indeed On Connaît la Chanson is a delicious film full of secret intentions and private jokes, all of which portray life in Paris as a continuous merry-go-round full of love songs, dreams, and defeat.
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