The movie musical has shown sporadic signs of life over the past decade or so, with early artistic triumphs (Moulin Rouge!, Chicago) giving way to devastatingly dull adaptations of Broadway’s most turgid shows (Dreamgirls, Hairspray and the tremendous missed opportunity that was Nine). The more that casts were asked to belt it to the rafters—Jennifer Hudson’s full-throated warbling in Dreamgirls overshadowed nearly every other aspect of the silver-screen take—the faster plots stopped dead in their tracks as shot selection grew less imaginative and the movies became very expensive sleep aids.
That’s why Beloved, the story of a mother and daughter’s journey through the 20th century and much of the Western Hemisphere, gets the benefit of the doubt for its first hour or so. The French musical features a cast of innate charm but no great melodic skill—at least, none that the audience is privy to, as the pop songs wouldn’t strain even the most untrained vocal chords. The songs in Beloved come so infrequently that it’s barely a musical—more like a relationship drama with occasional songs of either jubilation or lament (no in-between). The songs arise suddenly and, as quickly, drop off. And lyrically, they’re not exactly Sondheim. As translated in subtitles, characters sing lines like “London calling, but who I can’t say”; “Remember the ring you put on my finger?”; “Is this Oxford Street? Or my sadness and grief?”
The confectionery-sweet ditties add a sense of whimsy at first, but as the clock ticks on, the viewer begins to get frustrated; the plot of the film, shifting as it does from comedy to tragedy on a dime, is so lugubrious, so overdetermined, that the songs can’t possibly move the narrative forward. (Nor are they imaginatively shot. Sequence after sequence the camera tracks backward down an alley, keeping pace with a character walking in the same direction.)
Writer/director Christopher Honoré has inverted the movie-musical formula—while the songs are pleasurable to listen to, they’re not so much so that they prevent the audience from hankering for the final chord so that the plot may commence once more. And Beloved’s a real potboiler: Madeleine, a young prostitute, played by Ludivine Sagnier, gets impregnated, then grows up to be Catherine Deneuve. (She’s thus the luckiest working girl on her side of the Seine.) The gent floats in and out (young, he’s played by Radivoje Bukvic; old, he’s Milos Forman). The daughter grows up to be a neurasthenic Parisian.
Chiara Mastroianni makes a strong impression as Véra, the daughter who grows up, amid sometimes decade-long temporal leaps forward, to be self-dramatizing and monomaniacal in her pursuit of love (all too often amour fou). While Ms. Deneuve’s character borrows from the legendary actress’s own cool reserve, Ms. Mastroianni gnashes her teeth as much as the quirky French pop musical will allow.