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CANNES — The “musicals” of French director Christophe Honoré—hepreviously made the 2007 Cannes Competition entry Love Songs—are not musicals as Americans might think of them or, for that matter, as Jacques Demy once made them here in France. They are more soap operettas, to coin a phrase, where characters run up against romantic/sexual conflict and confusions, then stop for a moment to sing pleasant though forgettable little songs about their dilemmas. These aren’t musical numbers per se, more a case of someone walking down a street lip-syncing a song to express the emotions of the moment.
Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés), the Closing Night film of the 2011 Festival de Cannes, is different from Love Songs in that it covers 43 years, from 1964 to 2007, in the lives of a mother and daughter. These two must confront the problems of love in extremely different eras divided by the specter of AIDS.
Honoré has developed a following among some influential French critics, but Americans can only shrug in puzzlement. These soap operettas add up to so very little.
While Honoré recruits Chiara Mastroianni, Ludivine Sagnier and Louis Garrel from his LoveSongs cast, he has made one splendid addition that changes the dynamics utterly, that being Mastroianni’s mom, Catherine Deneuve. To witness the two singing in the streets of Paris makes your mind flip back through decades of images from movies past—from Demy, the young Deneuve and her late sister Françoise Dorléac to Mastroianni’s dad Marcello and so on. The memories evoked here are far more powerful than the movie itself.
As for the movie itself, the writer-director serves up two love stories, that of Madeleine beginning in the 1960s and daughter Vera, which crosses the threshold into the new century. Madeleine is played by Sagnier in the early going, then she hands off the role to Deneuve although it’s Honoré’s conceit to have both in a few scenes as the elder self haunts the younger one. This actually works better than it sounds.
One day Madeleine steals Roger Vivier shoes from the shoe boutique where she works. Moments later, when a man mistakes her in those expensive heels for a streetwalker, Madeleine decides to go along, inadvertently launching a second career moonlighting as a prostitute to boost her income.
Now this is a pretty flagrant thing to do to one’s heroine, which demeans and trivializes her all at once. Honoré seems to be setting up a later contrast between this era and the ‘80s and ‘90s, between casual, carefree sexuality and the overly cautious, commitment-phobic modern era brought on by the AIDS virus. But what a way to do so.
Once you’ve accepted such a flippant career choice, you probably will believe that a john named Jaronil (Rasha Bukvic), a Czech physician doing medical studies in Paris, falls madly for Madeleine, marries her and takes her back to Prague.
That marriage eventually breaks up over his infidelity. Yet despite her marrying a Parisian gendarme, Jaronil continues to pursue Madeleine for the rest of his life, the latter stages played by none other than Czech-born filmmaker Milos Forman.
The couple’s daughter Vera (Mastroianni) bounces around a bit—the film was shot in Paris, London, Prague and Montreal—but eventually falls in love with veterinarian turned drummer Henderson (Paul Schneider), who is gay. Another man (Garrel), who at least is hetero, is infatuated with Vera, but she continues to pursue this impossible love to the point of obsession.
Both love stories are so tissue thin that spreading them out over years and several actors only further exposes the superficiality if not the implausibility of these romances. Compounding the movie’s problems, Honoré has little feeling for staging songs composed by Alex Beaupain. Instead of talking, characters simply begin singing and in little while go back to talking. Where’s that American in Paris, Gene Kelly, when you need him?
Other than Garrel, a stiff actor with limited expressiveness, the players do admirably. They convey emotions and sentiments the artificial script hardly deserves. Location work everywhere is top notch and the smart decision was made not to turn this into a fashion parade through the decades but rather to go for a timeless look in the clothes, furniture and décor.
Out of Competition
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Production companies: Why Not Productions
Cast: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Milos Forman, Paul Schneider, Michel Delpech, Rasha Bukvic
Director: Christopher Honoré
Director of photography: Rémy Chevrin
Production designer: Samuel Deshors
Music: Alex Beaupain
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Chantal Hymans
No rating, 140 minutes
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