The opening sequence of Same Old Song (On Connait La Chanson) is delightfully astonishing, but it doesn’t set the tone for what follows. Startling juxtapositions are simply not director Alain Resnais’ speciality anymore. Although he’s best known for fracturing narrative in such epochal films as Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, his last film to get American release was just what its title, Melo, promised: a period melodrama, complete with curtains between the acts. Since then, his subjects have tended to be theatrical while turning increasingly British. In 1993, he filmed Smoking/No Smoking, derived from a play by Alan Ayckbourn (and barely seen in the U.S.). His latest effort emulates Dennis Potter, the Brit-TV dramatist known for working pop standards into the flow of such works as Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective, and Karaoke.
Same Old Song is considerably gentler than one of Potter’s corrosive scripts. A bourgeois romantic roundelay written by (and starring) Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who also adapted Smoking/No Smoking, the film touches on nothing more disturbing than frustrated ambitions and the quest for the perfect Paris apartment. In spirit, the tale suggests the work of Eric Rohmer, although it has neither Rohmer’s moral vision nor his astute sense of structure. If not for its cunning use of songs, the movie would be little more than a Gallic sitcom.
The six principal characters are connected mostly by romance and real estate: Aspiring radio-play writer Simon (Andre Dussollier) works for the younger, slicker Marc (Lambert Wilson), a top seller of fashionable apartments. Marc is delighted that Camille (Jaoui), a doctoral candidate who supports herself as a tour guide, has fallen for him. He is trying to sell an apartment to Camille’s older sister, Odile (Sabine Azema), oblivious to the disgruntlement of her husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi). Simon, who unrequitedly loves Camille, begins to confide in Nicolas (Bacri), an old friend of Odile’s who has reappeared after a long absence. Nicolas is looking for an apartment, too, but he’s unsure how big it should be, because his wife and children may not join him in Paris.
All of these characters have hidden aspects or emotions that they sometimes express in snatches of French popular song. The self-confident Camille begins to have panic attacks at the prospect of actually finishing her thesis, and Simon and Nicolas are both hiding their downscale occupations. The charming Marc has sleazier secrets: He sees Camille as just another conquest and is trying to sell Odile an apartment that is about to lose a critical feature. Odile and Claude still need each other but have neglected to notice as much for years.
Although residents of any fashionable city should get the film’s real estate jokes, the film can’t play overseas the way it would in France, because the songs don’t have the same meaning. Resnais chose well-known tunes precisely for their banality—there’s even some limp French soft rock—and often reduces them to their most-remembered phrases. He even indulges in a few in-jokes that will be outside for most Americans, like enlisting Jane Birkin, in a cameo role, to lip-sync a bit from one of her own hits.
This film is substantially more playful than Resnais’ early work, which was haunted by such historical infamies as the Holocaust, the A-bombing of Hiroshima, and the Franco-Algerian War. Still, it’s not quite as remote from the director’s reputation-making style as the fluffy scenario suggests. Resnais’ great theme is memory, and it’s reflected here in his treatment of the songs. They’re presented in a choppy, free-associative manner that the director says “corresponds to the way our minds work; we rarely remember a whole chorus or even more rarely a verse.”
What Same Old Song does with its merry melodies is thus more Resnaisesque than Potterlike; the songs denote not Potter’s authorial irony but the incorrigibly disarrayed process of human thought. Somewhere between hiphop and the stream-of-consciousness literary style that inspired his best films, the director has found an aural counterpart to the complex editing style that was once his hallmark. The result is hardly Resnais’ most profound effort, but it is significantly less glib than Jaoui and Bacri’s dialogue.
It’s impossible not to compare Anywhere but Here and Tumbleweeds. In the former, released barely a month ago, a ditzy, immature, middle-aged woman abandons the boring Midwest and drags her unwilling daughter to Los Angeles. In the latter, a ditzy, immature, middle-aged woman abandons the boring South and drags her somewhat willing, slightly younger daughter to San Diego. The latter was made on a tiny budget by a first-time feature director with a little-known cast, so it is considered somehow more worthy. It is also, however, much more annoying.
Of the two, Tumbleweeds is supposed to be grittier and more honest. And, because Janet McTeer is British, her acting has been praised as more of an accomplishment than Susan Sarandon’s in Anywhere but Here’s equivalent role. Yet McTeer’s bigger-than-life Mary Jo Walker is the stuff of elementary acting exercises, and her Southern accent is an easy caricature. Her performance combines cliche and condescension in equal measure—as does the movie.
Of course, Tumbleweeds is really the daughter’s story. The script was fashioned by writer-director Gavin O’Connor and co-writer Angela Shelton from the latter’s book, a memoir of life with a Mary Jo-like mom. So, naturally, 12-year-old Ava Walker (Guiding Light veteran Kimberly J. Brown) is wiser than her mother. Ava is immediately skeptical when Mary Jo takes up with a macho, ill-tempered truck driver—played by the director, who claims he took the role to save the cost of hiring an actor—and it’s Ava’s refusal to follow her mother on yet another impulsive relocation that precipitates the crisis that leads Mary Jo to the film’s, yawn, crucial breakthrough. Ava even understands that her mom’s co-worker Dan (Jay O. Sanders) is the true soulmate Mary Jo has sought for what seems—just during the flick’s 100-minute running time—like decades.
Selecting Dan is no stroke of genius. Any gentle, heartbroken man who counsels a 12-year-old to deliver the lines of Romeo and Juliet to “the rhythm of your heart” is obviously going to become her new stepdaddy before long. And when Ava gets Dan to reveal the secret of why he has never driven his RV—well, Tumbleweeds just keeps getting more and more sentimental and less and less believable. If this is Angela Shelton’s real-life childhood story, she must have grown up in a movie-of-the-week. CP