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The French Resist!-ance: Agnés Jaoui and Sabine Azéma mouth the music of songwriter France Gall et al. in 'Same Old Song.'

With a Different Meaning

'Same Old Song' nimbly tinkers with musical borders

By Emily Golembiewski

Alain Resnais, the 77-year-old New Wave director who brought us Night and Fog, Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, has achieved his largest popular success with On Connait la Chanson (Same Old Song). The film takes up French pop music, the Dennis Potter musical, the seamy underbelly of French history and, of course, psychoanalysis. If the film is noticeably lacking in human warmth--due to the performances as well as the musical structure--it is nevertheless intelligent and thought-provoking. Same Old Song is in fact dedicated to Dennis Potter, and the musical device is a throwback to Potter's style in The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven. Whereas Potter used entire popular songs to tell stories of illegitimate children, Depression-era America, a duplicitous Steve Martin or a tap-dancing Christopher Walken, Resnais uses splinters of French popular songs to substitute for dialogue, monologue, inner voice. True to Potter, Same Old Song embraces such show-stopping musical themes as hypochondria, depression, neurosis, panic attacks and deception.

Agnés Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who star in and wrote Same Old Song, tell the story of six interlocked lives in modern Paris. Camille (Jaoui) and Odile (Sabine Azéma) are sisters. Camille has an admirer, Simon (André Dussolier), and a boyfriend, Marc (Lambert Wilson). Odile has an ex-boyfriend, Nicholas (Bacri), and a husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi). The complicated structure becomes more so as Simon works for Marc, Marc is Odile's real estate agent. Simon and Nicholas become friends, and Simon is Nicholas' rental agent. And so on.

The chase for all of these relationships is organized around Camille's guided tours of Paris and is punctuated by sites like the prostitute-friendly Bois du Boulogne, Suicides' Bridge, the home of Madame Brinvilliers (the French Lizzie Borden). These deadpan tours are among the funniest moments in the film. Meanwhile, Nazis sing in Josephine Baker's warbling voice, Jane Birkin lip-syncs to her own song and Edith Piaf, Johnny Halliday and other French singers pop up on the soundtrack. Resnais' choice of music is particularly remarkable given the beleaguered nature of French pop music.

French music has long wilted in the shadow of Gallic contributions to the other arts. While French film had the New Wave, literature had Proust and painting had the Impressionists, French music is less a movement or institution and more an odd assortment of achievers. The handful of superstar French popular musicians have little in common. Try linking Francoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg, Air, M.C. Solaar, les Nubians, les Rita Mitsouko. The scattershot state of French musical achievement was judged dire enough that in the early '90s its radio rotation was regulated. The French language movement took steps to lawfully protect language and Francophonic music. Fearing an American pop invasion, billboards that had read "Coke Is It" were painted over to "C'est Coca." A negotiated percentage of radio play had to be French music. The idea was that if radio stations made room, the industry would rise to the occasion and produce songs to fill the void.

Same Old Song steps into this atmosphere of national identity, art, language and contagion by showing the breadth, depth and importance of French songs in the popular consciousness. In fact, when Jaoui and Bacri wrote Same Old Song, they allowed the songs to simply suggest themselves in the writing process. Some are a sort of monologue, used as the characters give a direct address. Others bridge an edit, like from Odile's car radio to Marc's voice. Sometimes the tunes are spoken or lip-synced, or become acknowledged conversational dialogue or interior voice. The haphazard nature of the musical insertions distracts and distances from the narrative development to a certain extent. The actors perform the songs with little emotion, even when they substitute for dramatic moments.

The distraction of the songs and the actors' delivery contribute to the overall lack of feeling. However, the straight-faced approach of the actors also calls attention to the songs and serves to say something very important about these songs and clichés. The reason why the songs came so easily to the writers, the reason why popular song lyrics fall into conversation all the time, is because they are true to a certain extent, if ultimately limiting and reductive. As Bacri explains, "If someone is sad, you say, 'Every cloud has a silver lining,' and he understands what that means. And, at the same time, you don't really reveal your own personality." What is interesting about Bacri's point is that he is talking about the proverb or pop song as a symbol, one which is both true and inexact.

Resnais has long been a favorite among psychoanalysts, and with good reason. There is an old psychoanalytic problem which corresponds to this idea of the pop song in popular language: how to analyze the analyst. For instance, stairs as a dream symbol are often linked with the content of the mother's legs, looking up the mother's skirts as a child crawling up the stairs, etc. But if the dreamer knows that stairs as a symbol often carry that content, then dreaming of stairs takes on a whole different import: stairs could be a symbol of psychoanalytic knowledge, they could substitute for a patient with mother issues, and so on.

In much the same fashion, On Connait la Chanson "outs" the linguistic stubbornness of pop songs and questions their use or their content. Ultimately, On Connait la Chanson is trademark Resnais: questions of identity, image and couplings are neatly woven through formal experimentation and a strong editing style. The fact that Resnais' stylistic tactics consume popular songs is a surprising turn in his career, and it marks a wonderful chapter in the saga of Franco-pop .

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From the January 24, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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