Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) is going to the cinema on her own again, and while in line to get in, she phones her boyfriend Ismaël (Louis Garrel) who is at work, telling him she is sick of doing this and wondering if there is anyone else with him. There is, and she is Alice (Clotilde Hesme); she is also in love with him and when Julie hangs up, she teases him about the relationship. But there is more to this than meets the eye, for Julie and Alice know each other very well - just as well as they know Ismaël. This is because they're all involved with a three-way affair...
Talk of French musicals always ends up being in the shadow of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so it's fitting that Catherine Deneuve's daughter Chiara Mastrioanni appears in Les Chansons d'Amour as Julie's sister. The two films share a sad eyed view of romance in that it's something that does not last or work out as well as the characters would like it to in each, but this has more optimism that there will be someone around the corner for you should your love be interrupted in some way.
The songs were written by Alex Beaupain and none of them could easily be described as showstoppers. There are no big musical numbers in this, as the singers simply trill as if they were carrying out a conversation, or if they're on their own they come across as voicing their innermost thoughts in a monologue. So those who like dancing with their musicals will be let down, and actually with its chilly, wintry Paris as the setting the film can be mistaken for being rather dreary, not least because of the major plot twist some way in which sends everyone into true dejection.
Director Christophe Honoré wisely cast a couple of cult stars here in the shape of Garrel and Sagnier, and their hip screen personas make their threesome more convincing and not a mere titillating plot device or poor gimmick to get potential viewers interested for the wrong reasons (sorry, no nudity here). The love is sincere, and while we see them having fun to a degree, their's seems to be a rather unsteady companionship, as we can tell from the songs which have them flinging insults at one another, and not exactly playfully either. Yet through all this, it's plain there is a lot of affection there above the more predictable sexual attraction.
Don't be fooled, though, this is an emotional journey and although the tunes include lines about pubic hairs in the bath and other unglamorous bits and pieces, Honoré reveals himself to be a big old soppy romantic at heart. So when something happens to break up the trio's happiness, the loss is deeply felt, even if we were not sure precisely how long they could have continued in that state if they hadn't been split. The message in this undeniably downbeat film, which can be drab at times, is that you have to keep going forward in life because you never know either what you've got till it's gone, or what might be heading your way in a more beneficial light. Although Les Chansons d'Amour has veers too close to miserabilism, the pretty-sounding (especially in French) songs do work their magic and provide the wistful boost the characters need to get by.