Friday October 15, 1999
"Same Old Song," a romantic comedy in which several generations of popular French songs pop out of the mouths of its characters, is not the picture you would have expected from Alain Resnais, whose elliptical "Last Year at Marienbad" and intimate epic "Hiroshima Mon Amour" remain New Wave landmarks.
But in the four decades since those challenging works Resnais has grown lighter in tone and ever-more effortless in style, just as Luis Bun~uel did before him in his own way. Still, who would have thought that the cerebral Resnais would have ever made a film so close in spirit to his New Wave confrere Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"? In any event, "Same Old Song," intended as a homage to the late Dennis Potter, whose "Pennies From Heaven" this film most resembles, is a sure-fire charmer, even if the songs Resnais quotes in snatches, are by and large unfamiliar to non-French audiences.
Resnais and his writers, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who are also among the film's six stars, let us know we're in for something different right at the start. A Nazi commander in the Occupation receives word from Hitler to destroy Paris but after Der Fuhrer is finished the voice of Josephine Baker singing her signature "Two Loves Have I" starts coming out of his mouth. (Don't be surprised if this is the only song you recognize, even if the singers represented range from Maurice Chevalier to Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Halliday.)
In a graceful cut to the present typical of the film's easy, flowing style, we're introduced next to Camille Lalande (Jaoui), a history major and Paris tour guide who is pointing out the window of the office of that Nazi who in fact did not follow Hitler's orders.
Camille's older sister Odile (Sabine Azema) is in the process of nudging her reluctant husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi), into letting Camille's hotshot Realtor boyfriend Marc (Lambert Wilson) sell them a posh penthouse. In the meantime, Nicolas (Bacri), Odile's old flame, has looked her up, having come to Paris to hunt for a job and relocate there with his family after a two-decade absence. Simon (Andre Dussolier), who works for Marc, is in Camille's tour group and strikes up an acquaintance with her once they discover they share a passion for history.
While introducing us to these six individuals and thereby setting in motion a complex set of interactions among them, Resnais maintains a largely jaunty tone. But once things get going the film gradually takes on a more melancholy tone. Camille and Nicolas prove to be severely depressed; Marc is an unscrupulous businessman who sneers at the older Simon, a dreamy writer of historical radio drama. Odile becomes increasingly unlikable, a bossy, brittle, frivolous silly woman who's about to drive away the pleasant but increasingly fed-up Claude.
Only Simon seems to be happy and content, easily shrugging off Marc's contempt for him. But he too may be developing vulnerability when he starts falling in love with Camille but keeps his feelings secret as he is so much older than she.
The way in which Bacri and Jaoui have incorporated bits and pieces of 35 songs is amusing and witty in effect while always remaining an integral part of their text. The idea is not to stop the show but to tap the emotional pull of standards to enrich the audience's identification with the six characters' ever-changing hearts. Resnais retains masterful control of this deft integration of dialogue and song.
He directs his cast to beautifully nuanced portrayals and maneuvers an ever-shifting tone flawlessly with a lyricism that becomes the film's signal accomplishment. If Resnais sends us home happy, he does so with the subtlest reminders of life's fleetingness.
Same Old Song, 1999. Unrated. A Merchant Ivory Films release in association with Artistic License Films. Director Alain Resnais. Executive producer Bruno Pesery. Screenplay & dialogue by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Cinematographer Renato Berta. Editor Herve De Luze. Music Bruno Fontaine. Costumes Jackie Budin. Set designer Jacques Saulnier. Set decorator Philippe Turlure. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours. Pierre Arditi as Claude. Sabine Azema as Odile Lalande. Jean-Pierre Bacri as Nicolas. Andre Dussolier as Simon. Agnes Jaoui as Camille Lalande. Lambert Wilson as Marc.