With "Beloved" ("Les bien-aimés"), the closing night selection of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, prolific French director Christophe Honoré returns to the postmodern musical turf he first explored in 2007's acclaimed "Love Songs." Here, he covers 45 years over 150 minutes and gives the impression of major intentions: Honoré goes epic. Instead, he made a conventionally bittersweet and perfectly serviceable follow-up that affirms his skill without breaking any new ground.
"Beloved" follows two generations of women: Madeleine, a classy hooker in the 1960s, and her daughter Vera, whose major scenes take place during her adulthood. Despite Honoré's existing reputation, this is first and foremost an actor's movie, given that the director has assembled an extraordinary all-star cast.
Ludivine Sagnier plays the carefree Madeleine in her early days, when she falls for a suave Czech doctor (Rasha Bukvic). As an older woman, Madeleine is played by the legendary Catherine Deneuve, whose unparalleled ability to project an exterior of confidence while hiding her characters' inner flaws remains consistent. In a masterstroke of casting, iconic filmmaker Milos Forman plays the aged version of Madeleine's Czech lover, delivering an amusing performance that makes you wonder why he hasn't taken more gigs like it.
But none of the cast supersedes the role given to recent Honoré muse Chiara Mastroianni as the adult Vera. Rebellious after growing up around her mother's profession, Vera is a likable character undone by her recklessness. This allows Honoré to oscillate from earlier scenes that have the light touch of his ongoing Jacques Demy homages to darker, tragic moments that come later.
Although highly derivative, "Beloved" contains loads of flashy period details to sustain the endearing performances. The opening prologue, set to a French cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walking," quickly establishes how Madeleine stole a pair of fancy footwear and wound up being confused for a pricey call girl, a role she whimsically decided to take on. "If it weren't for those Roger Vivier pumps, my mom would never have become a whore," Vera explains in a voiceover that recurs throughout the film.
That stage doesn't last long: Once Madeleine discovers that the Czech doctor -- a client who becomes her lover -- has a wife back home, she tracks him to Czechoslovakia just as Russian tanks invade the country in 1968. It's not the last time Honoré introduces a vast canvas of historical events into his relatively simple narrative, as later events involving Vera's rough adulthood take place against the backdrop of 9/11.
The strongest moments are set in the late 1990s, when the leads all experience the inevitable crisis that bring down the mood. Vera falls for a gay American drummer (Paul Schneider, in a fine, low-key performance) while keeping the affections of her close friend and co-worker (Louis Garrel) at bay. Her parents, meanwhile, maintain their morally questionable relationship even as Madeleine stays married to another man. Both situations become problematic, but not in any outstanding fashion. "Beloved" never really earns its sprawling timeline, eventually bogging down in too many developments and overstaying its welcome. For a movie where people intermittently burst into song, the plot is oddly one-note.
Which brings me to the music. As in "Love Songs," the soundtrack for "Beloved" contains a handful of jolly, competent and utterly forgettable pop melodies that the characters sing to each other in only a few scenes. Reteaming with "Love Songs" composer Alex Beaupain, Honoré frames this storytelling approach as a superficial Jacques Demy homage minus any significant dance sequences. The gimmick outdoes its execution, turning "Beloved" into a "Love Songs" retread rather than building on it. In trying to stretch himself Honoré offers more of the same, but at least that has plenty of style to spare.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its natural charm and a who's who of French actors in the cast, "Beloved" would make sense with a smallish U.S. distributor like IFC Films (which released "Love Songs"), particularly since it has potential to appeal to younger audiences in love with its chic look. It could do solid business in limited release and on VOD. In France, however, it's likely to be a hit.
criticWIRE grade: B