Christophe Honoré, France, 2011, 139 mins, 2.35:1
Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Milos Forman, Paul Schneider, Rasha Bukvic, Michel Delpech, Omar Ben Sellen
French Theatrical Release: 24 August 2011, Le Pacte
Review by Noel Megahey
Returning for his latest film to the director’s now familiar style of the modern Parisian street musical – developed in Dans Paris and taken to full length in Les Chansons d’amour – one gets the feeling that Christophe Honoré is retreating to familiar ground. A case of “I’ve found a style that works and I’m going to keep using it”. That particularly seems to be the case since neither of the director’s subsequent two films – La belle personne (a modern adaptation of ‘La Princess de Clèves‘) and Non ma fille tu n’ira pas dancer – received as much attention, or even distribution in the UK. Which is a pity, because in the case of the latter at least, there was definitely an attempt on the part of Honoré to tackle familiar themes of loss, bereavement, depression and the mixed fortunes of love through a different style.
Those familiar themes in the director’s work are there again in Les Bien-Aimés, as is the complication of love between a couple of mixed sexual orientation, and Honoré has once again called upon singer/songwriter friend Alex Beaupain to compose some musical numbers to help carry the film along through those particularly difficult subjects. And to a large extent it works, bringing a touching quality that hints of greater emotional depths that are otherwise difficult to express in cinema without teetering on the brink of sentimentality or melodrama. That technique had however been proven in those earlier collaborations, and one can feel a little bit frustrated that, initially at least, there appears to be little that is new about the themes or the love affair arrangements in Les Bien-Aimés.
Personally, I also found my patience tested with a storyline that seems to be all over the place, never settling on one character or period, skipping between them with what seemed like nothing more than an excuse to gather together the director’s favourite actors (Mastroianni, Garrel, Sagnier), and flirt with period 60s, 70s and 90s production designs with matching songs to fit each decade. By the time the film reaches its terribly poignant conclusion however, the film’s overall structure becomes more apparent and one can’t help but being impressed by the ground that has been covered, not only in terms of taking its characters through a number of decades, but by the complex and in-depth characters that it has managed to build up along the way.
The complexity of the relationships is compounded by the fact that the film attempts to cover the tragedy of the great loves in the lives of both a mother and her daughter (with a real life mother and daughter in the roles, Deneuve and Mastroianni). Played as a young woman in 1964 by Ludivine Sagnier (a good choice for a younger Deneuve), Madeleine’s life takes an unexpected but decisive turn when she steals a pair of classy shoes from the Parisian shop that she works in. Her flaunting the shoes in the street leads her to being propositioned and she finds a calling for herself, and easy money to be made, as a prostitute. But only until she meets Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), a young Czech doctor, falls in love with him and moves to Prague where she has a baby, Véra. The arrival of Russian tanks into the city, as well as the philandering activities of Jaromil (shades of the Unbearable Lightness of Being here) however leave Madeleine with no option but to return to Paris with Véra, but without Jaromil. As the years go by however, Jaromil (played as an older man by the Czech director Milos Forman) keeps turning up, trying to rekindle their love, even though Madeleine (Catherine Deneuve) has now remarried.
While all this goes on over the years, the older Véra (Chiara Mastroianni) meanwhile is trying to make the significant relationship in her life work, but it seems doomed to failure. While in London, on a book signing with her casual partner Clément (Louis Garrel), she meets Henderson (Paul Schneider), the drummer in a band she sees at a club. It soon becomes apparent to Véra however – not immediately though and as a bit of a shock – that Henderson is gay and HIV positive. Nonetheless, there is a definite connection between them that Véra at least, is compelled to follow-up on over the years, even though it seems like it’s never going to lead to any lasting happiness.
As with Honoré’s previous work in the genre, Les Chansons d’amour, there’s obviously then nothing light-hearted about this musical. Or rather, there are moments of magic and beauty – albeit often in a rather unconventional manner – in a film that covers a much wider range of emotional situations, and covers each of them well, integrating them into the whole. Which is surely, a reflection of life itself. I can’t say I fully empathised with the predicaments of a bunch of characters who are difficult to like, and somewhat self-destructive, but the unconventional character-types certainly make the film a lot less predictable than it might otherwise be.
So, no matter how you might feel about the characters and the decisions they take, by the time Les Bien-Aimés does reach that conclusion after two and a quarter hours – ending with a haunting and heartfelt song beautifully sung by Catherine Deneuve – the viewer can’t help but feel for these characters, each driven to make difficult choices, never taking the easy road, but following their hearts that demand to be loved in their own individual way, wherever that leads them.