2 generations, 1 complication
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, September 7, 2012
How do you tell a story that spans 43 years, two continents and four countries, encompassing such historical events as the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? How do you express such outsize themes as infidelity, obsession, unrequited love and suicide?
By singing, of course. It also helps if you’re French.
“Beloved,” by writer-director Christophe Honore (“Dans Paris”), somehow manages to feel sprawling and epic, while at the same time presenting an intimately observed view of two women’s love lives. It asks a simple question: Is it better to love or to be loved?
The answer is as complicated as its protagonists’ relationship statuses.
At the heart of “Beloved” are a mother and a daughter. Madeleine, played by Ludivine Sagnier as a young woman and by Catherine Deneuve in her golden years, is for much of the film a self-described former prostitute. Actually, what she calls herself is a “part-timer.” In the 1960s, while working in a Parisian boutique, Madeleine discovers that men will pay for sex. This provides her with pocket money and -- in the brisk pace common to movie musicals -- an instant husband and daughter.
That husband, a handsome but philandering Czech doctor named Jaromil, is first played by Rasha Bukvic, then later in the film by Milos Forman. Their daughter, Vera, is briefly portrayed by two different child actors, but for most of the movie is played by Chiara Mastroianni, who, in a stroke of casting brilliance, is Deneuve’s real-life daughter.
Madeleine and Jaromil have a short-lived marriage. After one infidelity too many by him, Madeleine and Vera return to Paris from Prague, where they had briefly moved. Madeleine marries a cop and Vera grows up.
And here, if you can believe it, is where the movie starts to gets really interesting.
Both of the women’s stories involve roughly parallel romantic entanglements. Madeleine is torn between her second husband, Francois (Michel Delpech), who loves her, and Jaromil, whom she has never really stopped loving. Jaromil feels the same way. He shows up, almost 30 years after their divorce, asking for her back.
For Vera, it’s a little different. She has an ex-boyfriend (Louis Garrel) who wishes that she loved him. Unfortunately, she’s obsessed with a man (Paul Schneider) who, for reasons that are best left as a surprise, can never be wholly available to her.
Both mother’s and daughter’s lives are kind of a mess.
The movie, on the other hand, is surprisingly not. Honore juggles these many moving parts, hopscotching from 1964 to 2007 -- and occasionally back to points in between -- with a sure hand and a steady foot.
What seems like an increasingly unwieldy amount of story -- made even busier by the at-times-silly musical accompaniment -- achieves a remarkable simplicity and clarity as it works its way toward its graceful conclusion. (The songs are prettier, and wittier, in French than in the subtitled translation, so it helps if you understand a little of the language.)
At almost 2 1/2 hours, it’s a long, long film. How could it not be? By the time it glides -- not lumbers -- to the closing credits, it’s also amazingly moving.
Contains sex, nudity, obscenity, brief violence and smoking. In French with English subtitles.