DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHE HONORE
Christophe Honore’s musicals have always had the air of the French New Wave with a little bit of Demy and Varda going on. The music is original, beautiful, deeply personal (there are no jazz hands or chorus ensembles to be found), natural (I am pretty certain all of the actors are singing live), and the film and song working together show a kind of flexibility and fluidity of human emotion and sexuality. With the triumphs of DANS PARIS and LOVE SONGS (I highly recommend LOVE SONGS), Honore has his most ambitious and anticipated work, thanks to casting one of the most iconic French actresses in Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch. That and the fact the film takes place stretching through a world history that starts with a newly post-colonial France to the post-9/11 world showing of a mother and a daughter in states of entrapment for being in love. Not to mention the fact Honore musical veteran, Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s real-life daughter) is playing the other half of mother-daughter team. Audiences have seen Mastroianni and Deneuve act in the same film (A CHRISTMAS TALE) but unless we are counting them voice-acting the original French version of the animated film PERSEPOLIS, they have not played mother and daughter before to my knowledge. So does this film live up to the high expectations that comes from an Honore musical and really any Deneuve role? THE BELOVED is an over-long and sluggish at times film that still feels under-developed. But damn are the performances not good and the songs are lovely earworms that still dance in my head.
Honore has always paid homage to the French New Wave while also added contemporary twists and attitudes to his characters but given that this film first takes place in the 1960s. Still this is a part clearly written as a love letter to Deneuve. You have another Honore musical veteran Ludvine Sagnier (who also played Deneuve’s daughter in the whacky Ozon musical 8 FEMMES) as a petty crime thief Madeleine who turns tricks to feed her materialism of shoes. There is a lot of BELLE DU JOUR going on especially in the cosmetic looks that Sagnier takes on that definitely helped me buy her as proto-Deneuve. She falls for one of her Johns and they get married, but she finds herself in a miserable situation, him being a Czech national doctor in Jaromil, and ends the marriage wrought with infidelity and dishonesty. But she finds herself still under his spell and they continue meeting every few years for sex despite she remarrying, almost subverting that ending of separate paths in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, another Deneuve picture that clearly is Honore’s biggest influence above all else. The marriage produces a daughter in Vera who is pretty much too aware of the dangers of her parents’ relationship almost promising herself to not get herself into a relationship that can only end in despair.
But, of course, she gets herself into one but she does not go the easy route of further engaging romantically in a volatile relationship with Clement (Louis Garrel, another Honore musical veteran) but instead falling for veterinarian Ivy League student turned band drummer, Henderson (Paul Schneider). But there is a twist. He is gay and HIV+ but continues, whether consciously or not, to have Vera wrapped around his finger. Henderson discounting a relationship with Vera with a very binary view of sexuality, something that Honore has rejected in his other movies, is an interesting one and I do not think it is any surprise he is American and has that view while Honore’s French characters very fluid. Considering how explicit his sex scenes are with Vera, it seems that Henderson is in a bit of denial that he could be in love with the opposite sex and that also could have a lot to do with his disease where he was a little reckless. You cannot really blame Vera for getting the mixed messages.
I cannot really go further in the plot of either character but the historical backdrop is just a back-drop and never amplified. The unavoidable dates are necessary but not really holding a petty, solipsistic symbolism of the characters. In fact, Honore has his characters be very much not caught up in these historical events. There is still a bigger comfort zone when it is classic Honore having his characters sing out in the streets with spot-lights shining on them like a torch song or characters singing to each other in enclosed spaces, however. Basically when it feels smaller it is better than the grander ambitions I believe Honore was trying to go for. The sex scenes, although a lot less fluid and more aware of the structural norms of marriage are still beautifully shot (with some intense close-ups of many of the participants) as romantic and hardly subversive.
The film still feels like it needs to simultaneously have cut down on some scenes and also put more character development (particularly the thankless role of Madeleine’s second husband Francois). I get why you get the legendary Milos Forman playing the older Jaromil but that whole arc felt a little over the top even if it was important to the character of Madeleine. The Madeleine story had the men feel like cyphers than three-dimensional characters. I wish there was more time in the present that explored the Clement and Vera relationship or at least more songs. Those were some damn good songs.
If you are into French films (because boy, oh, boy this film has an ending that completely represents French film endings) or into musicals with a twist to it, this is a good edition to the overall body of work by Christophe Honore. The cast is great and while there is nothing groundbreaking (except how much better Paul Schneider is not working for the Parks & Recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana) in the performances there are genuine moments of haunting, beautiful acting. It is not his best work but it has enough good songs that may leave you with the impression there is nothing more simultaneously beautiful and futile as love.