Following his unforeseen foray into porn-ish experimenta with the intriguing oddity that was Homme au bain (2010), the prolific Christophe Honoré returns to more expected territory with Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) (2011), which was the closing night film of Cannes 2011 and gets its UK release on 11 May. More expected territory, perhaps, but hardly predictable. Contrasting with Homme au bain’s low-key approach, the new film is, in fact, Honoré’s largest-scaled, most ambitious work to date. Disappointingly for those anticipating a Toni Morrison adaptation, it’s a decades-spanning, city-hopping musical (not that the director wants the film labelled as such) that teams the director with his star muses Chiara Mastroianni, Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier and also reunites him with the composer Alex Beaupain who wrote the score to Honoré’s first musical, the lovely Love Songs (2007). There’s a crucial new addition to Camp Christophe this time, though. And that’s Catherine Deneuve, who’s paired here with her real-life fille Mastroianni for a film that sometimes suggests Terms of Endearment (1983) shorn of sitcom and sentiment (and with songs!) as it chronicles and contrasts the amorous adventures of its mother/daughter protagonists over 40 years.
A foot fetishist’s wet dream, the film’s lively, skittish opening follows a young Parisian shop-girl, Madeleine (Sagnier, perky and peroxide blonde), in 1964, as she steals a pair of shoes from her workplace and slips them on on her way home. With an insouciance that’s a trademark of certain Honoré characters, Madeleine is happy enough to be mistaken for a hooker, which brings her into contact with a Czech doctor, Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), whom she marries, has a child by and accompanies to Prague. But Jaromil’s philandering results in the end of the marriage, and Madeleine returns to Paris with their daughter, Vera. Jaromil remains a presence in the women’s lives, however, continuing a sexual relationship with Madeleine even into the latter’s remarriage. As Vera grows up (to be played by Mastroianni, as Denueve takes over from Sagnier as Madeleine), the movie’s scope broadens further, following Vera as she travels to London, where she meets and falls for a gay American drummer, Henderson (Paul Schneider), whose (apparent) inability to requite her affections is mirrored in the predicament of Vera’s ex, Clement (Louis Garrel), who’s still frustratedly in love with her.
By turns playful and ponderous, sexy and sad, exultant and reflective, Beloved zips through moods with extraordinary dexterity, making light work of its generous 138 minute running time. The central dialectic that the movie is based around - '60s free love contrasted with Age of AIDS uncertainties - sounds banal. But the complexity of Honoré’s approach means that the contrast doesn’t come off as glib, nor does the disparity between libertine mother and angsty commitment-phobe daughter feel too stressed. As his earlier work has shown, Honoré has a knack for writing edgy, funky, spontaneous scenes that seldom progress as one expects, and his sharp dialogue surprises, delights and unnerves in equal measure. Riffing on French film history in a way that manages to delicately evoke rather than slavishly replicate, Honoré’s work retains a fresh, airy vibrancy. And no contemporary writer-director I know is better at presenting the kind of messy, unresolved relationships that both frustrate and sustain us.
Honoré's appetite for unpredictability extends to his use of the locations here, which scrupulously avoid touristy landmarks, whether in Paris, Prague or London. Some may take issue with the way in which socio-political events serve as a mere sketchy backdrop to the characters' emotional problems. And yet the film takes you by surprise even here, notably in the memorable way it catches the mood of post-9/11 Montreal, where the darkest, most painful section of the movie unfolds.
Indeed, like Honoré’s 2009 film, Making Plans for Lena (2009), Beloved develops a novelistic richness of texture as it progresses, and Beaupain’s songs - simply staged and adroitly employed at moments of crisis or decision for the characters - form part of that richness here. (The translation of the lyrics isn’t always so inspired, sadly.) Mixing buoyant pop and tender piano laments, the songs allow genuinely complicated emotions into them and underscore some of the movie’s most indelibly beautiful moments, from the wonderful transition scene that ushers Mastroianni and Denueve into the movie to Henderson and Vera’s shared expression of alienation and unbelonging on “Ici Londres.” And sequences that should by rights be the height of kitsch - Sagnier singing her romantic disillusionment as the tanks roll into Prague in ‘68, for example - win their way through to a surprising amount of emotion.
Honoré seems to have learnt something from his filming of the sex scenes in Homme au bain, too. His style here is more sensuous and tactile than ever, with the actors often filmed in swooningly intimate close-up. The cast withstand the scrutiny, thankfully. Mastroianni delivers a performance to match her star turn in Lena for bravery and emotional insight. In a cheeky move, Honoré keeps us waiting quite a while for Deneuve’s first appearance but our patience is rewarded by the witty, elegant and finally moving performance that she gives. The greatest revelation, perhaps, is Schneider, terrifically strong and touching as Henderson, but there’s also a super turn from Milos Forman as the older Jaromil, who's granted an amazing exit sequence that's haunted me in the several weeks since I saw the movie. A few characters do get short shrift, notably Michel Delpech as Madeleine’s second husband, and - a brilliant sequence set in London's Institut Français notwithstanding - Garrel’s role doesn’t quite take off either; he’s also saddled with the movie’s least distinguished song in “Reims.”
Beloved’s overall trajectory from light-hearted frivolity to chilly melancholia won’t suit viewers who like their movies to announce their identities early on, and its final developments may strike even those who don’t as unnecessarily harsh. Still, even when the film falters, it’s never less than engrossing, and its stylistic brio, emotional honesty and audacity in moving the movie musical into fresh, distinctive terrain won me over at pretty much every turn. Honoré’s last few films weren’t granted a UK cinema release; Deneuve’s presence has ensured that this one has been, so make it your mission to catch it where you can.
The soundtrack can be listened to here.