(2011)2.5Mark DemingChristophe Honoré's film Beloved (aka Les Bien-Aimés) is a story about love, sex, fidelity, and shoes. Lots of shoes. Even though the shoes don't have all that much to do with the plot, Honoré rarely passes up an opportunity to take note of his leading ladies' footwear, practically ogling when they slip out of their flats and put on a stylish set of heels (a not uncommon occurrence in the picture). Since Beloved is a movie that often focuses on the personal obsessions of its characters, it's certainly fair game for Honoré to indulge what may be one of his own, but indulgence is its greatest flaw. The film is beautiful to look at, and it has been directed and written with no small intelligence, but it's too long, too slow, too broadly focused, and too willing to wander off on a variety of tangents to achieve what it sets out to do and make the emotions of its characters truly resonate.
Beloved opens in 1964, as pretty, twentysomething Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) works in an upscale shoe store. One evening, she helps herself to a pair of sexy pumps from the shop's stock, and while walking home she's mistaken for a streetwalker by an awkward but good-looking gentleman. When the man offers her an impressive sum for her services, she agrees, taking a "why not?" attitude and imagining she could use some extra pocket money for shoes and dresses. Madeleine becomes a part-time prostitute and takes a carefree attitude towards sex work until she meets Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), a handsome Czech veterinarian who is taken with her beauty. But Jaromil wants more than a professional relationship, and although she is reluctant at first, in time the two marry and settle in Prague, soon welcoming a daughter named Véra. When the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia, Madeleine tearfully chooses to return to France and start life over. She divorces Jaromil and weds François (Guillaume Denaiffle), but she's never able to shake her attraction to Jaromil, and she continues to occasionally hook up with her ex and turn tricks when she feels like it.
Years later, Véra (Chiara Mastroianni) is a woman in her thirties who is trying to make sense of Madeleine (now played by Catherine Deneuve) and her relationships as the latter continues to shuttle between Jaromil (Milos Forman), who wants to remarry her, and François (Michel Delpech), who tolerates her sexual adventures but is losing patience with them. Véra, like her mother, is torn between two men, but both relationships leave her unsatisfied: Clément (Louis Garrel) is a writer and teacher who loves Véra but doesn't excite her, while Henderson (Paul Schneider) is an American musician who is fascinated by Véra and steals her heart, but is a bisexual who usually prefers the company of men and cannot commit himself to her.
You might not have guessed from this plot description, but Beloved is also a musical; the film periodically pauses to allow the characters to sing witty and pointed pop songs about their personal and romantic dilemmas, and while they're well-written and the cast perform them with reasonable skill, they don't add shading to the characters so much as they summarize what we already know. The songs ultimately seem like a stylistic affectation in a movie that's already full of them -- writer/director Honoré clearly enjoys moving back and forth between time periods and planes of reality where the characters can watch one another at various ages, but the final effect feels chilly rather than engaging. He does have a keen eye and the film looks marvelous as it jumps from nation to nation and from the mid-'60s to the 21st century (and he subtly shifts his visual style and editing rhythms to match time and place), but the results please the eye without engaging the mind or the heart, largely because the script, for all its details, only tells us so much about the characters.
Ultimately, the finished product has a cool emotional reserve that seems counterintuitive for a story about people struggling with their desire for love and fulfillment. The cast certainly give their level best, especially Catherine Deneuve, who still seems a plausible creature of desire in her late sixties, and Chiara Mastroianni, who has the thankless task of bringing Véra's disastrous search for love to life and does so with impressive strength. Ludivine Sagnier doesn't reveal much range as the younger Madeleine, but she gives her enough warmth and charm that one eagerly forgives her. Christophe Honoré clearly wanted Beloved to be an epic-scale meditation on love and desire, with enough major cultural signposts along the way (including the end of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) to make it feel universal. Instead, it feels insular and plodding, and the film seems to have a greater feeling for shoes than the people who wear them onscreen. Although in all fairness, he does pick some pretty nice shoes.
A mother and daughter follow similar paths with different results in this drama with music from writer and director Christophe Honoré. In 1964, Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) is a restless young woman working at a shoe store who, after helping herself to a new pair of high heels, is mistaken for a streetwalker by a man passing by. Madeleine impulsively decides to go along with the stranger's assumptions, and soon discovers prostitution can be a profitable part-time job. One of her regular customers is a handsome doctor named Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), and when he asks for her hand in marriage, she accepts. They settle in his native Czechoslovakia and have a daughter, Vera, though political upheaval leads Madeleine back to Paris and a new husband. Years later, a grown-up Vera (Chiara Mastroianni) looks back on the story of her mother and father (played in their later years by Catherine Deneuve and Milos Forman) with a viewpoint colored by both romanticism and regret. While Madeleine's life as a streetwalker brought her love and adventure and she now divides her attentions between two men, Vera has grown up in an era where AIDS has made such sexual openness something like Russian Roulette, and she's unable to commit to a relationship, tossing aside her on-and-off boyfriend Clement (Louis Garrel) in favor of obsessing over Henderson (Paul Schneider), a musician who prefers the company of men. Les Bien-aimés (aka Beloved) was an official selection at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.