The Beloved (2011)

Les Bien-AimesFrance

Christophe Honoré
Christophe Honoré
Director of Photography:
Rémy Chevrin

Original title: Les Bien-aimés

Running time: 140 minutes

Just because it’s French doesn’t mean it’s any good.

The Beloved (Les Bien-aimés) tries to be everything and nothing at once, incorporating some terribly dramatic events into a film that shrieks with ostentation yet encourages us to forgive its sins because it is set to the melody of so-called love. Over a period of more than four decades, in a globe-trotting tale played out in locales from Paris to Prague to Montreal, we get a look at the world’s oldest profession with many songs that are somehow supposed to lift the mood but only make the viewer roll her eyes at the exasperating ordeal.

In a very promising opening scene that takes place in Paris during the early 1960s and pays homage to François Truffaut, we see plenty of women parading their legs onscreen. These legs are clearly meant to seduce, and they work their charms a little too well: A Frenchman mistakes Madeleine, a young demoiselle leisurely lingering on the sidewalk, for a prostitute. But she has nothing better to do and, seizing the day for a quick buck, unexpectedly finds her calling.

News travels fast, and before long, Madeleine is approached by every Tom, Dick and Harry for a good time. One day, she meets a young Czech doctor called Jaromil — for some confounding reason played by Raša Bukvić, a Franco-Serb actor who speaks Czech with an accent — and elopes with him to Czechoslovakia, shortly before 1968.

Love can make the world turn round, but it makes this film fall flat on its face, and we know things are going pear-shaped when the actors soon start belting out dreadfully dull songs on the street. The songs are too long, too numerous and too boring to make us care about the characters, and while (or, perhaps, because) director Christophe Honoré tries to jazz up his sets by using bright colours or, on one occasion, lighting his characters with an enormous spotlight, the action has a consistently phony feel to it.

As the young Madeleine, Ludivine Seignier does bring a certain shine to the boggy waters of the plot, but once she disappears, any interest disappears along with her. As an adult, she is played by the grand dame of French acting, Catherine Deneuve, and Madeleine’s daughter Vera is also Deneuve’s real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. Perhaps the casting of these two actresses as the film’s mother-daughter duo of nymphos could have provided some wonderful moments of chemistry, but in this event it brings nothing of note to the production and appears as gratuitous as much else onscreen.

Vera quickly takes centre stage and has an interesting face but fails to be a force strong enough to join the rambling series of plot developments. At one point, it seems we should believe she has magical powers of seduction, since she more or less turns a gay man straight, but even this ridiculous development has no pay-off, since there are merely hints at complex human emotions without any real engagement of the questions raised.

Furthermore, we get scenes built around narrative threads no less bleak than Prague Spring, AIDS and 9/11, without any attempt to integrate such topics in a less than flippant fashion. Honoré tries to be both courageous and playful but ends up with a very cowardly treatment of his material.

By the time the very Czech Miloš Forman (taking over as the elderly Jaromil from the youthful Bukvić) appears as a bumbling fool halfway through the film, serving as a kind of comic relief, it is with a sense of dread that we realize this is as good as it will get.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Beloved is grossly overweight, and despite the 40 years covered in the script, one has the sense we’ve spent half the time looking at senseless close-ups of the mole on Mastroianni’s face and listening to an excessive amount of second-tier songs. The sight of people like Deneuve prostituting her talents for an awful film like this one makes the viewer plunge into despair. There is nothing  to love here, so move along.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

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