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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice