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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Melodic "Love Songs" to classic musicals

Jeanne, a woman quietly coping with a terrible loss, strolls through a Paris park on a gray afternoon, remembering a happier time. The sibling of a...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"Love Songs," with Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Chiara Mastroianni, Clotilde Hesme, Grégoire Leprince-Ringeut. Written and directed by Christophe Honoré. 95 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains sexuality). Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

Jeanne, a woman quietly coping with a terrible loss, strolls through a Paris park on a gray afternoon, remembering a happier time. The sibling of a main character, she's played by Chiara Mastroianni (whose very presence is a link to European cinema history: her father is Marcello Mastroianni, and her mother — whom she resembles — is Catherine Deneuve), and she's wistful and heartbroken. Her thoughts take her back to earlier days in the park. And she expresses them in the way people in movies rarely do these days: in song.

"Love Songs," written and directed by Christophe Honoré, is a musical; its whispery-voiced actors slip in and out of song, crooning to each other on the rain-soaked Paris streets, in crowded apartments and on wrought-iron balconies. Its main characters are a couple in their 20s: Ismaël (Louis Garrel), a handsome fellow with tousled dark hair, and Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), an angelic-looking blonde whose favorite sparkly scarf seems to mirror the nighttime sky. Their romance is modern and made more complicated (to put it mildly) by the third member of their ménage à trois: Alice (Clotilde Hesme). (Mastroianni plays one character's sibling.)

So the usual pattern for romantic comedy doesn't fit here, but that's not what Honoré has in mind: Though the film begins lightheartedly, with Ismaël and Julie singing a bouncy song about their relationship, it quickly turns to tragedy. Songs of love become songs of loss, as the characters regroup, find solace in unexpected places and learn to move forward. Honoré has divided the film into three parts, whose titles illustrate the story's progress: "The Departure," "The Absence," "The Return."

Honoré was clearly inspired by Jacques Demy's wistful masterpiece "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," though "Love Songs" contains spoken dialogue ("Umbrellas" is entirely sung through) and, in its soft grays and blues, is visually more quiet. And Mastroianni's gentle performance, with a singing voice as soft as a misty Paris rain, recalls that of her mother in Demy's film. In its small way, "Love Songs" finds the magic that the great screen musicals have — the way a sad song can nonetheless leave an audience happy, or the way two voices blending seems to create something so much bigger. "Love me less, but love me a long time," sings a character at the end; love, in this tuneful drama, is never quite out of reach.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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