Cinema: Middlebrow, middle-class, magical

On Connait la Chanson (PG)

Let's begin at the very beginning, shall we. Somewhat to one's surprise, given its cartoonishly jaunty, Carry On-like credit titles, the opening sequence of Alain Resnais's On Connait la Chanson is set inside a swastika-draped salon in the Germans' Parisian military headquarters during the ebbing days of World War II. Poor General von Choltitz has just received Hitler's demented order to raze the City of Light. In an agony of indecision, he faces his attendant aides-de-camp. Then he opens his mouth ... and what emerges from it is the guttural squawk of Josephine Baker singing, "I've got two loves - my home and Paree!" Whereupon we cut to the present, and never again revisit the past.

What's going on? The answer is that Resnais is an Anglophile of long standing, whose last two films, the identically-twinned Smoking and No Smoking, were adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's cycle of interlinked comedies, Intimate Exchanges. And On Connait la Chanson, a merry-go-round (or, rather, melancholy-go-round) of dalliances and misalliances, matches and grotesque mismatches, is a corresponding homage to Dennis Potter.

Or is it? Actually, the surest way to be disappointed by the film is to keep thinking of Potter. The device of allowing characters to voice their unspoken thoughts by lip-synching to popular songs may be the same but, that comically nightmarish flashback apart, the use to which Resnais puts it could scarcely be less Potteresque. In the first place, what we hear are mostly snippety fragments, never complete tunes. Second, there's no dancing, absolutely no attempt to recapture the nostalgic sheen of the classic Hollywood musical. Third, the whole tenor of the narrative is drastically different.

Boasting one of those typically French daisy-chain structures, it focuses on a group of bourgeois Parisians beset by all the usual emotional and material anxieties of their caste. (There are times when it's not unlike a Posy Simmonds strip relocated across the Channel.) Camille (Agnes Jaoul), a crotchety student moonlighting as a tour guide, is timorously wooed by the hangdog Simon (Andre Dussollier), an author of radio dramas moonlighting as an estate agent, whose boss is the suave, womanising Marc (Lambert Wilson), who meets Camille by chance while trying to palm off a spectacular if suspiciously underpriced penthouse apartment on her sister Odile (Sabine Azema), who is exasperated by the eternal shilly- shallying of her stuck-in-the-mud husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi), who - Oh, but what's the point? You've probably already lost track of who's doing what to who, and this is, in any case, the type of film to which a synopsis is utterly irrelevant.

It does, I know, sound fairly minor, and it's unlikely that its huge critical and commercial success in France will be replicated here. Yet there is a paradoxical quality to the film that makes it much more interesting than you might gather from my skeletal little precis. What we have here is something very rare indeed: an art film about just those tribulations that have to be confronted on a daily basis by the kind of people who tend to make up art-film audiences.

Think of it. Could that be said of Godard's films, or Greenaway's, or Wong Kar-Wei's? Just to enter their imaginative worlds necessitates a wrenching shift of gears on the average spectator's part: as LP Hartley nearly said, the art film is a foreign country, they do things differently there. The characters of Resnais's film, by contrast, are a few not-especially- glamorous specimens of middle-class ordinariness. They're not suicidal, just averagely depressive. Not the kind of born losers that art films thrive on, but not the stuff of Hollywood schmaltz either. Individuals not at the end but, like many of us, at the beginning of their tether. As is true of few current films, but of most people's lives, On Connait la Chanson contains no violence, no outrageously kinky sex, no virtuoso four-letter-word tirades. It could almost be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

And the music? Well, to be honest, a lot of it is garbage, and French garbage at that: one drawback for British audiences is that they're not playing our songs. (Some of the oldies, though, are sweet.) But really, it's not all that important. The songs represent an environment, not a culture. Instead of being pumped indiscriminately out of radios and record-players, they circulate inside the characters' heads. Resnais told an interviewer he hoped spectators would eventually forget their very existence, and that's not the wishful thinking it sounds. Frankly, and I realise I'm going to be in a minority here (possibly of one), I far prefer his deployment of the conceit to Potter's. True, it lacks Potter's melodramatic flamboyance; equally, though, it avoids his sweaty surreality and heavy, hobnailed ironies.

For many, Resnais's reputation as a director has jammed at his early trio of masterpieces, Hiroshima, mon amour, L'Annee derniere a Marienbad and Muriel, and this new film cannot seriously be considered in their league, being visually drab and stylistically a bit old-fangled. Yet it's also funny, poignant, and quite flawlessly played (add a pair of rimless glasses, and Dussollier would be the spitting image of Potter himself - an hommage?) And its subject is one of the most affecting imaginable, even if it appears no longer to interest contemporary artists: to wit, happiness, the pursuit of happiness, and the despair, Emerson's celebrated "quiet desperation", that our failure to catch it fatally engenders.

In fact, were On Connait la Chanson to have been given a moral, as Eric Rohmer's films often are, it would be this: If there were no such thing as happiness, the world would be a far happier place.

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