The child of nouvelle vague

Retrospective Christophe Honoré

The biggest storms are behind little Sophie. Though she became an Orphan within the time of one year, fate has finally been good to her. She doesn’t have to live with her strict stepmother, but can enjoy the rest of her childhood on the country estate of Madame de Fleurville, a friend of her late mother’s. When she arrives there in a carriage, rain is pouring down. Still, she doesn’t run inside right away. Instead, she stands in front of the little chateau, throws away her umbrella and starts singing and dancing, right there on the lawn.

A magical happy-end for a wonderfully amiable and still infinitely moving family film. But this small, tonguein-cheek musical number crowning »Les malheurs de Sophie«, Christophe Honorés adaptation of two classic children’s books by the Comtesse de Ségur, is more than that. One can very much interpret it as a confession and maybe even as a self-portrait of the filmmaker, who was born in 1970. Before Sophie experiences her sweeping ›Singin’ in the Rain‹-moment, repeatedly looking directly into the camera, Madame de Fleurville gushes about her »wild curiosity about the world«. And it is this »wild curiosity«, this insatiable longing to always try something new and different instead of taking the beaten, albeit secure path, that Christophe Honoré shares with his heroine Sophie.

Honorés cinematic debut »17 fois Cécile Cassard«, a splintered portrait of a woman who drowns in her grief after her husband’s passing, which premiered 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival, was already a unique promise, arousing great expectations. Because this melancholic cinematic puzzle didn’t just show Honoré‘s remarkable intuition for his actors and actresses strengths. It also spoke with a unique artistic voice.

The 17 scenes of the film do not fit together neatly. They are snapshots, approximations of moods and emotions that can be put in pictures, but hardly in words. »17 fois Cécile Cassard« consequently refuses to havea classical plot. But it is replaced by something different and much more valuable: an obstinate freedom. Because, for Christophe Honoré, the cinema is not a machine whose only purpose is to cater to the mostly simple and standardized wishes of the audience.

Even »Les bien-aimés«, his big and star-studded musical, has something antagonistic at its core. Of coursethe French filmmaker and author, who used to write for »Cahiers du cinéma«, bows to Jacques Demy with this family history that spans four decades and stars Catherine Deneuve und her daughter Chiara Mastroianni as mother and daughter. Remy’s grand musicals from the 1960s, »Les parapluies de Cherbourg« and »Les demoiselles de Rochefort«, which made Catherine Deneuve a star, clearly influenced »Les bien-aimés«. But Honoré withdraws from the pleasant retro-nostalgia that has become so typical for the cinema and pop-culture of the 21st century.

Christophe Honoré does not simply revitalize an old fashion. He seizes it to then reinvent it in the spirit of our times. Every one of his films is deeply rooted in the history of cinema. That’s why »Ma mère«, his transgressive portrait of an incestuous mother-son relationship, and »Métamorphoses«, his contemporary adaptation of Ovid’s ancient transformation-myths, are reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini. »Dans Paris« and »Les Chansons d’amour« are mostly influenced by the heroes of the nouvelle vague. But they all have their own inimitable force. Honoré appropriates exactly the freedom that cinema gained in the 1960s with new waves and strong movements. Because this gives him another kind of freedom. The legacy of the nouvelle vague and the traditions of French queer cinema combine in his works and are, at the same time, transcended by him. Or, to say it differently: what flows, changes – and what flows stays alive.

Honorés tales of love and sorrow, of unrequited feelings and extinguishing passions, disintegrating families and changing commitments, often come down to a triangle. It’s the constellation that changes. Sometimes it’s two women and a man, sometimes two men and a woman. But there is one thing these alternative relationships have in common. They indicate a utopia with a different kind of cohabitation, and a different sexuality that is not unambiguously defined anymore. Like in Ovid‘s »Metamorphoses«, there is fluctuation and that’s where its subversive power comes from. Christophe Honoré‘s films break with long-standing notions – and even if the protagonists often cannot hold on to their fleeting happiness, something still sticks. His works remind us of what could be – in life and in the cinema. And they awaken a »wild curiosity«. We could all be Sophie. If we, like all her girlfriends, the daughters of Madame de Fleurville, those »petites filles modèles«, found the courage in us – against all convention – to dance with her in the rain.