Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Beloved: Honore’s New Movie Musical

Prague and Paris have to be two of the most romantic cities in the world.  Yet, a mother and daughter have relationship issues in both European capitals.  It seems like codependent sexual dysfunction runs in their family in Christophe Honoré’s latest movie musical, Beloved (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Beloved opens in swinging sixties Paris, as Honoré revisits his acknowledged Jacques Demy influences.  It is like a fairy tale, in which shopgirl Madeleine falls in love with Jaromir, one of the prostitution clients she sees on the side.  It’s a French fairy tale.  After Jaromir completes his specialized medical studies, she moves to Prague with him, becoming his wife.  Soon, the hotshot doctor acts like he also has a license to philander, but his wife refuses to recognize it.  Things come to head just as the Soviet tanks start rolling through the streets of Prague.

Madeleine divorces Jaromir but she never gets him out of her system.  Even though separated by distance and ideology, he maintains a hold on her, despite her second marriage to an adoring gendarme.  It will be a pattern that somewhat repeats for her daughter Vera.  Her colleague Clément is devoted to her, but she only has eyes for Henderson, a rock drummer from New York, who happens to be (mostly) gay.

Anyone who has ever considered themselves losers for carrying a hopeless torch will feel much healthier once they watch Vera pine away her life.  Initially it is rather uncomfortable, but it gets downright tragic.  Beloved is far from your typically bubbly movie musical, but it works better than Honoré’s prior attempt, Love Songs, largely because the characters are not as irritating and the situations are less stifling.  Beloved can make viewers wince, but it also gives them air to breathe.

Honoré walks quite a tightrope, using perhaps the two greatest post-war tragedies, the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and September 11th, as backdrops for his mercilessly intimate drama.  Honoré focuses exclusively on the micro level, where painful personal conflicts continue unabated, even when the wider world is turned upside down.  Nonetheless, some of the “internal contradictions” of post-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia are duly noted and images of the 1968 invasion are suitably ominous.  Given their visceral nature, the scenes of 2001 Montreal (where Vera’s flight was diverted) are somewhat iffier, flirting with exploitation by mere association.

Happily, Milos Forman never sings in Beloved, but he is perfectly cast as the old charmingly degenerate Jaromir of 2008.  In contrast, Honoré alumnus Chiara Mastroianni handles her husky vocal features fairly well and keeps viewers vested in her angst far more compellingly than in his outright maddening Making Plans for Lena.  Her real life mother Catherine Deneuve has some nice moments as Twenty-First Century Madeleine, but it is totally the sort of diva-centric character we are accustomed to see her assume.  In contrast, Ludivine Sagnier is appropriately spritely as young Madeleine in the early Cherbourg-esque scenes.  Louis Garrel (son of Philippe) is his usual sullen screen presence as Clément, but American Paul Schneider is surprisingly engaging as the commitment-phobic Henderson.

As a musical, Beloved works rather well, thanks to some frequently distinctive songs penned by Alex Beupain.  They certainly fit the vibe and context of the film (as well as any movie musical tunes ever do) and often serve to advance the story.  While it is a bit overstuffed with characters and hoped for significance, it is definitely one of Honoré’s better works.  Recommended on balance for Francophiles and those who appreciate moody musicals, Beloved opens this Friday (8/17) in New York at the IFC Center.