As the closing night film at Cannes in 2011 — and, as such, lumped in historically with such bland films as “The Tree,” “What Just Happened?,” “Chromophobia” and “The Age of Darkness” — writer-director Christophe Honoré‘s “Les Bien-Aimés” (aka “The Beloved“) was already at a disadvantage. Sidelined out of competition, offered up as a final course to cineastes whose metaphorical bellies are already set to burst from an excess of riches, no one was going to think too much about the movie, regardless of its quality. Honoré’s film in fact falls short of even the minimal expectations set by circumstance, to be truly tedious, flat and hollow — a recycled exploration of themes and techniques the director has used before inside the bloated casing of a movie with a 145-minute running time.
Bouncing between eras in France, “Les Bien-Aimés” is the story of both Madeleine (Catherine Deneuve in the present, Ludivine Sagnier in the past) and her daughter Vera (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real daughter). Both Madeline and Vera have complicated loves, and complicated feelings, and wind up expressing those loves and feelings in song. This is nothing new for Honoré — his acclaimed “Love Songs” did the same thing, with music by repeat collaborator Alex Baupain — but this time, the jolt and the juice simply isn’t there, neither in the songs nor the story.
Part of that may be the simple subjective observation that idiomatic and fluid casual French phrasing in song doesn’t transition well to stark English subtitles — the first phrases sung in the film, by Sagnier’s young lover, are “Wait until our love has died/before the beatings start…”. But the songs are not only innumerable (we counted 12 “original” but identical songs before simply giving up on keeping track) but also irrelevant — the musical material doesn’t enhance the feeling or the drama in any way, but, rather, bogs the film down with scenes that take five minutes to say, in song, what two or three brisk, brief lines of dialogue could establish just as well. The best musical number, in fact, isn’t even one of Baupains’ original songs but instead a live version of Bo Diddley‘s “Who Do You Love” played by a rock band in a club while Mastroanni is manhandled and moved around Apache-dance style by a number of men who could be her lovers — it’s a metaphor for the confusing thrust-and-parry of sexual liberation, choreographed as something messy and exciting.
And without the songs, “Les Bien-Aimés” would be sub-soap-opera-level melodrama. Vera is inconsolably, unrequitedly in love with an American veterinarian enjoying self-imposed exile in London, Henderson (Paul Schneider) — who happens to be gay. Madeline is torn between her stable, strong marriage to Francois (Michel Delpech) and her passion for first husband, Vera’s father, Jaromil (Rasha Bukvik in the past, Milos Forman in the present). There’s a lot of bed-hopping here, beyond even cliché perceptions of the French cultural attitudes around les affaires de coeur, and you can’t help but feel that Honoré is confusing activity with advancement. He makes the requisite stops at various historical landmarks — both the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and September 11th, 2001 are in the background as other important things happen to our characters — but these events are not felt or followed through, just pages in a scrapbook flipped past in the rush to get to the next scene.
The long-term timeline of “Les Bien-Aimés” gives Honoré some nice toys to play with — there are a few choice shots of ’60s France, and of tanks in the streets of Prague to burn up the production budget, and there are some moments that clumsily clutch for something like magic, with the past and present iterations of Vera and Madeleine trading verses in a song, or Madeleine going to her flat in the present day and finding her past self behind the door. But so many scenes in the film are forced and flat — why exactly does Vera love Henderson? What is it about Jaromil that makes him Madeleine’s eternal soulmate? And the film’s big dramatic shocker — a suicide that literally comes out of nowhere — isn’t a moving moment, just a mystifying one.
The picture’s French style, joi de vivre and locations probably made it a natural for Cannes’ closing night out-of-competition slot, along with the presence of national treasure and icon Deneuve. But the actual movie inside that packaging is tone-deaf, smug, precious and flat — and the sight of poor Paul Schneider, so good in films from “All the Real Girls” to “Bright Star,” singing bland lyrics in French while playing a gay-but-not-really-gay drummer-slash-veterinarian-slash-expatriate, is just awkward. Honoré’s made better films, and he’ll make better films again; the most damning thing you can say about this one isn’t that it feels like Honore doing a third-rate imitation of Francois Ozon (“Potiche,” “8 Women“), but rather that it often feels like Honoré doing a third-rate imitation of himself. [D]
This is a slightly edited version of our review from the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.