The carefree love life of a 1960s French mother is daringly juxtaposed with the amorous travails of her daughter several decades later in “Beloved,” scribe-helmer Christophe Honore’s second musical meller after “Love Songs.” Unlikely to be confused with the same-titled Toni Morrison adaptation, Honore’s latest again forges a song-sprinkled narrative out of intertwined stories of love and grief, with the second half especially delivering the helmer’s trademark melancholy-tinged melodrama. With Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni playing mother and daughter, as they are in real life, marketable pic should have slightly longer legs than “Songs” at home and abroad.
In the feather-light opening sequence set in 1964, young shoe-store salesgirl Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier, looking more like Twiggy than ever) steals a pair of designer heels at work. While wearing them, she’s accosted by a man who thinks she’s a girl of pleasure. Much to her own surprise, Madeleine starts playing along, perhaps hoping she won’t need to resort to stealing again to have what she wants.
One of her johns, handsome Czech doctor Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), falls in love with her and asks her to come with him back to Prague, where they eventually have a child. This sets the stage for the first four ditties, with the second, simply called “Prague,” the most effective. Sagnier’s throaty voice imbues the song with raw emotional power as she explores how she feels about her hubby’s infidelity.
A few framing scenes and occasional v.o. make clear that Madeleine’s time as a youngster is being observed through the eyes of her grown-up daughter, Vera (Mastroianni), who idealizes the past of her Madonna-whore mother (later played by Deneuve) and infidel father (later played by Czech helmer Milos Forman) to an unhealthy extent. The reason for this gradually becomes clear: Throughout the years, Madeleine was able to be a prostitute, get married twice and have extramarital affairs (even with Jaromil after their divorce), while Vera, who grew up in the era of AIDS, which immediately linked sex with death, has commitment phobia.
This idea is beautifully illustrated by Vera’s impossible crush on Henderson (Paul Schneider), an American she meets in London in 1997. Inviting herself to the tiny pad of this veterinarian-turned-drummer after a concert, she discovers he’s gay, which seems to convince her only more that he’s the right one for her. Though her novelist pal and ex, Clement (Louis Garrel), is still head-over-heels for her, Vera can only think of Henderson.
As in “Love Songs,” the lyrics and music were written by Alex Beaupain, and his work again extends the conversations or thoughts of the characters, the difference being that here, it also provides direct access to the characters’ emotions. Never conceived for the charts or a cover version on “American Idol,” the tunes only make sense in context, and Beaupain ensures the lyrics take precedence over the musical accompaniment. As could be expected, some of the lyrics’ more poetic qualities are lost in translation.
Although the pic races through four decades of sociopolitical turmoil and pan-European locations (Paris, Prague, London), and even lands in North America on 9/11, Honore is not interested in the grand sweep of history, only in how the passage of time changes realities related to the heart. His location work includes no touristy landmarks, and the camera always stays close to the characters at street level, further adding to the overall sense of intimacy.
Pic’s 138-minute running time is certainly excessive, but the fluffy early scenes, which contain an unusual number of shots of feet and shoes, are necessary to give the later, more dramatic scenes more heft. The film’s big emotional wallop comes from an impressive Montreal-set sequence beautifully played by Schneider (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Bright Star”) and Mastroianni, whose characters come eye-to-eye with each other and their own shortcomings.
Deneuve is a newcomer to the Honore universe, but playing mother to one of his regular actresses, Mastroianni, comes naturally, while “Songs” alumni Sagnier and Garrel again ace the difficult acting/singing combo. Rest of the cast is on the money. Gallic singer Michel Delpech has an extended cameo as Madeleine’s second husband and is fine, though it seems kind of cruel to cast him in a musical and not let him sing.
Rest of the tech package, including sound mix and lensing, is neat.