Now is a good time to get in on the ground floor of a great movie face as it changes. The face belongs to 24-year-old Louis Garrel, and like a lot of the great French faces - Depardieu and Auteuil, come to mind - the centerpiece of Garrel's is that nose. The dark eyes and spout of a mouth seem to emanate from there. Most remarkable is the way Garrel's paleness almost constitutes a source of light; he has silent-movie skin.
And silent-move charisma. Not very far into Christophe Honoré's "Love Songs," which begins a run at the Museum of Fine Arts tomorrow, Garrel entertains a table full of people with his performance of deep emotions - "despair," for instance. The eyes flutter madly. The nose tilts up. Somewhere Rudolph Valentino gets a royalties check.
Honoré could have made just as rapturous a movie by turning the sound down, but then we wouldn't have the pleasure of hearing Garrel, and the rest of the cast, sing. The songs, written by Alex Beaupain, are thoughts that the characters casually sing to themselves and to each other on side streets or in kitchens. They're about rain, colors, seasons, angels, blood, and tears; the actors' vocal abilities fall somewhere between the shower and the recording studio. The feelings are the point. If Ludivine Sagnier sounds dolorous when she sings to Brigitte Roüan, who plays her radiant mother, it's because her character, Lucy, is sad.
Well, really, she's confused. Lucy and Ismael (Garrel) have turned their couple into a threesome, comically making room in their bed for Alice (Clotilde Hesme), Ismael's bookish, asexual (that's her description, anyway) co-editor at a newspaper. Ismael tolerates the romantic expansion because it's what Lucy wanted, but all he really wants is her.
To bring "Love Songs" alive, Honoré walks a delicate line between gravity and light screwball farce. The stuff with the trio sharing Ismael's bed is amusing, but the film pivots on a tragedy that puts most of the characters in a funk. And it's amazing that the movie doesn't collapse under the weight of all the frowns, the most exquisite of which is worn by Chiara Mastroianni, who plays the dourest of Lucy's sisters.
Honoré's last film, "Dans Paris," was a more emotional whirlwind than this one is. Teamed with an exuberantly ragged and hairy Romain Duris, Garrel was a more bewitching force of nature in that work. The unconventional idea in "Love Songs" is that lust isn't fixed, and that, with some ease, sexuality's orientations can be repositioned. A body is just a vessel for the feelings within it. (It probably helps when the face isn't bad to look at, too.)
So just as things are looking unstoppably glum, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, as a college kid (and Breton) with a raging crush on Ismael, comes to the emotional rescue. It's a long story, but his persistence pays off, for us at least, with a final shot that, as far as the movies go, is both audacious and romantically absurd. You'll laugh. You'll swoon.