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
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game