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Les Bien-Aimés

September 10, 2012
Les Bien-Aimés

Christophe Honoré is an accomplished filmmaker, and has been described as the contemporary heir to the Nouvelle Vague. His musicals, in particular, attempt to follow Jacques Demy’s New Wave musicals, like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Unfortunately, somewhere in making Les Bien-Aimés — subtitled in English as Beloved — he lost track of Demy’s lighthearted spirit and ended up with a sprawling epic with little tonal consistency and less ultimate point.

We start in 1964, in Paris, where Madeline (Ludivine Sagnier) works selling women’s shoes as expensive as her tastes. But it isn’t until a random passer-by offers her seventy new francs — about $100 in today’s money — that she thinks of working part-time as a prostitute. Soon she meets and falls for a john named Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), a Czech medical student. They marry, have a daughter, and move to Prague. But when the Prague Spring comes to an end Madeline flees back to France, leaving Jaromil behind.

In 1997 their daughter, Véra (Chiara Mastroianni), is grown. Madeline (now Catherine Deneuve) is long-since remarried to retired gendarme François (Michel Delpech). Not that that stops Jaromil (now Milos Forman) from returning once the cold war abates. But the action passes largely to Véra, who meets an American who goes by Henderson (Paul Schneider) while on a publicity trip to London with her lover, fellow teacher, and novelist, Clément (Louis Garrel). The stage is set for a multigenerational, musical romp before everyone ends up with the one — or ones — they love.

Except that’s not what happens at all. In Honoré’s tale, it seems, loving or being loved is nothing but a recipe for heartache and regret. It’s not that I’m a die-hard fan of Hollywood formulas, but would it be such a tragedy if this weren’t, well, such a tragedy?

It’s not enough for love to simply fail, though. Honoré actively seeks out lows, hitting whatever major catastrophes he can find in the turn-of-the-century Western world. And in the face of these events the characters’ actions range from unmotivated to chaotic. But that’s love, I guess?

Still, within this framework there are some lovely performances. The chemistry between Mastroianni and Schneider, in particular, works very well, as does that different flavor between Mastroianni and her real-life mother Deneuve. Deneuve still has her voice from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and Mastroianni isn’t half bad herself. In fact, the only truly disappointing singer is Garrel, whose sole vocal part is distractingly badly overdubbed.

Composer Alex Beaupain does a good job with the music; standing apart from the plot they’re catchy and it’s actually sort of a shame for them to be dragged down by their context. In a lighter setting they could do well, even with a relatively down ending. But as it is they work to raise the tone of a story that is in every other respect resolutely dark.

If the songs are set aside, there’s no reason to believe that the rest of the movie should be a musical in the first place. It’s not like Demy was the only Nouvelle Vague filmmaker to emulate; Truffaut, for instance, could provide a far better model for the story Honoré seems to want to tell. Instead we’re left with what feels like two different films — a musical and a dour meditation on love — jammed uncomfortably together.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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