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Same Old Song

Same Old Song(1998)

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Same Old Song, a 1997 musical-comedy-drama directed by Alain Resnais, truly cleaned up in the César Awards race, France's equivalent of the Oscar sweepstakes. Along with best picture, it won three best-acting awards plus honors for best screenplay, editing, and sound as well as additional nominations for Resnais and four others. No doubt about it, Same Old Song, known as On connaît la chanson in its native French, proved an instant crowd-pleaser. And this surprises me, because it isn't that marvelous a movie. It has some likable performances, a mildly interesting gimmick, and a modest amount of low-key charm. But it's way below the level of Resnais's greatest work, and only Resnais completists are likely to be enthusiastic about it today.

Then again, Dennis Potter completists may also want the DVD edition from New Yorker Video, since the movie is an homage to that remarkable screenwriter. And this is where the aforementioned gimmick comes in. In some of Potter's most celebrated TV miniseries, including Pennies from Heaven (1978) and The Singing Detective (1986), characters abruptly burst into song – not singing with their own voices, but lip-syncing popular numbers that reflect their thoughts and feelings at the moment, as if life itself were a karaoke session on a cosmic scale. A miniseries he finished just before his death in 1994 is actually called Karaoke, referring to a screenplay that's been written by a character who's dying of cancer, exactly as Potter was doing in real life. The big difference between Potter's greatest works and Resnais's tribute is the intense philosophical seriousness that surges beneath the multileveled plots and grimly absurd moods that are among Potter's trademarks. Resnais is a hugely intelligent filmmaker, and his most legendary masterpieces – from Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour in the 1950s to Love Unto Death and Mélo in the 1980s – have as much philosophical depth as any European movies of the last sixty years. By either accident or design, though, his accolade to Potter is never more than skin deep.

Like many of Resnais's more recent films, Same Old Song has a sizable cast of interacting characters. Camille, a graduate student who's terminally bored by her own thesis, gets infatuated with Marc, a real-estate agent you'd never buy a used car from, and ignores Simon, who's obviously a perfect match for her. Odile, her chronically keyed-up sister, is so tired of her husband, Claude, that she takes more than a casual interest when an old boyfriend, Nicolas, pops back into her life. The movie deals mainly with the romantic complications in these relationships, culminating in a large party where all the figures have to confront truths and falsehoods they've been doing their best to evade throughout the story.

Resnais's most memorable films generally fall into two camps: transfixing excursions into crystal-pure cinema, such as Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour, and imaginative essays in richly theatrical film, such as Not on the Lips and Private Fears in Public Places, another movie with a real-estate theme. Same Old Song falls between these categories, lacking the visual ingenuity of the first and the emotional concentration of the second. Most of the limited pizzazz it does manage to display comes from the stock company of engaging actors that Resnais has cultivated for the past 25 years or so, and the picture's César wins reflect this. Best actor went to André Dussollier as Simon and the supporting-actor prizes went to Jean-Pierre Bacri as Nicolas and Agnès Jaoui as Camille; this left Sabine Azéma and Lambert Wilson, who play Odile and Marc, as the only performers to get nominations only. Bacri and Jaoui, who has herself become a filmmaker of note in recent years, wrote the César-winning screenplay, and the editing honors went to Hervé de Luze, who does his best to keep things hopping along.

The best assets of Same Old Song are the old songs that pepper the soundtrack from start to finish. Among the selections are "J'm'en fous pas mal" from Edith Piaf; "J'ai deux amours" from Josephine Baker; "Et moi dans mon coin" from Charles Aznavour; "Afin de plaire à son papa" from Simone Simon; "Mon homme" from Arletty; "Ma Gueule" from Johnny Hallyday; "Avec le temps" from Léo Ferré; "J'aime les filles" from Jacques Dutronc; and "Quoi" from Jane Birkin, who's also in the on-screen cast. If you're a fan of French pop music, this is definitely the movie for you, as long as you don't mind hearing just a handful of lines before the character drops back to plain old talking.

The late Pauline Kael, who was overloaded with strong opinions even by movie-critic standards, once said Resnais was "an innovator who hasn't got a use for his innovations." Applied to much of Resnais's career, that's a nonsensical verdict. But when I'm faced with a second-tier achievement like Same Old Song – or with a flat-out disaster like I Want to Go Home, an alleged comedy made several years earlier – I can almost see what Kael meant. Same Old Song is too inventive, or rather too tricky, for its own good; and the primary trick isn't even Resnais's own, it's potted Potter, lacking the originality and bite it had when it was new. The movie's high-spirited atmosphere makes it hard to dislike. Unfortunately, its uninspired contrivances make it just as hard to like.

For more information about Same Old Song, visit New Yorker Films.To order The Watcher in the Attic, go to TCM Shopping.

by David Sterritt