Labor of Love: French Flick Beloved Bores

That Ms. Mastroianni is Ms. Deneuve’s real-life daughter may explain the pair’s chemistry despite their characters’ diametrically opposed positions on love. “I don’t suggest you fall in love,” says Ms. Deneuve’s character at one point. “The rest may be fun.” And yet Ms. Mastroianni pursues an unattainable man (the charming American actor Paul Schneider), whose homosexuality makes their arguments about why he ought to love her seem not only interminable, but vaguely offensive. “You realize I got the idea that you loved me,” says a heterosexual woman to a gay man. “But I’m not bitter.” Instead, she simply redoubles her efforts in a manner that isn’t allowed to be read as deranged but rather as passionate—the object of affection is, within this narrative, a problem to be solved.

This movie thus operates according to a sort of dream-logic. The songs, which happen at such random intervals that they always take the viewer by surprise, are in some ways the least surreal part of Beloved, a film that jumps forward in time with little warning, addressing the sweep of history as though it were a dark subplot easy to ignore. The terrorist attack of September 11, for instance, is something that merely happens to Véra, diverting a flight to Montreal and delaying a romantic reunion with her gay beloved. The Soviet tanks pulling into Prague provide a great opportunity for the young Madeleine to skip town, but, never fear, her husband will roll into Paris to dance with her in a pool hall out of some Damon Runyon story.

Why bother moving from Prague to Paris to London with nothing to say about the changes the 20th century wrought on any of those places? Without a doubt, the film is more interested in the changes in romance over time than in any sociological or historical change. But it feels pointless to jump from one time and place to the next with the only notable difference being Madeleine and Véra’s respective descents into cynicism and mad disillusionment, especially given how opaque Madeleine’s character is.

While Catherine Deneuve’s chic untouchability has justly made her a screen icon, it works against her role here; her extreme sangfroid is either an example of the divide between American and French outlooks or, more likely, an emphasis of style over substance. Even by the standards of this film, her singing is arid, emotionally detached. Each wry aphorism Madeleine directs at her distraught daughter feels like yet another iteration of the altered reality Mr. Honoré’s characters inhabit—and in a film of over two hours, is it too much to ask that the façade might crack a little bit? When Ms. Deneuve finally shows an emotion, it feels like much too little and hours too late. The film vacillates between the extremes of seen-it-all pessimism and manic pursuit, between songs of pure devotion and lamentation. Like being in love, its hairpin shifts in tone can be compelling; unlike the best musicals, it fails to stir the heart moment to moment.

Beloved
Running Time 145 Minutes
Written and Directed by Christophe Honoré
Starring Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier

** 1/2 out of ****