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.
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.
Running Time 145 Minutes
Written and Directed by Christophe Honoré
Starring Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier
** 1/2 out of ****