Beloved opens in Paris in the 60’s, closes in that same city in the 2000’s, jumps from Prague to London to Canada in between, and strains credulity every step of the way. Directed with misplaced confidence by Christophe Honoré and featuring an illustrious if understandably confused cast, the film has pretensions to being a sweeping romance that spans decades and continents. It would help, of course, if such an epic was blessed with a somewhat engaging plot. This is not the case.
In the Paris of the mid-60’s, Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) is a shoe store clerk and prostitute who, during the film’s opening, steals a pair of designer pumps, a decision which endears her to Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), a Czech doctor visiting the City of Lights. He starts off as a client, and then becomes lover and eventually husband, whisking Madeleine away to Prague. They manage to have a daughter, Vera, before Madeleine grows fed up with Jaromil’s philandering and retreats to Paris as the Soviet tanks roll into town.
Things flash forward mostly inconsequentially after that, until we end up in late-1990’s London, where Vera (now played by Chiara Mastroianni) is desultorily pursuing a dalliance with Henderson (Paul Schneider), a gay American veterinarian hiding out in London for hazily-explained reasons. Meanwhile, Madeleine (Sagnier being replaced by Mastroianni’s real-life mother Catherine Deneuve) and Jaromil (having aged into Milos Forman) have rekindled their old affair. Things become even more convoluted as AIDS, 9/11, and other seemingly random tragedies interfere with our characters’ respective happiness.
But that’s not all! Beloved is also, unbelievably, a musical, its songs usually arriving uninvited into the scene when the main characters’ love lives become confusing or sad. The numbers themselves are pretty lackluster, and the cast, already sleepy-eyed from trying to keep track of the unnecessarily complex love story, fail to inject any life into the mediocre songwriting. The music does little to inform or enrich any of the events in the film.
It didn’t have to be this way. Beloved scratches the surface of being an interesting film, or at least a bold experiment. Aspects of the story could have held their own had Honoré not chosen to mix them in with about fifteen other insipid plot elements, or sabotage them with ridiculous and unbelievable turns of events, such as singing. The fashion in which the characters conveniently globe-trot their way into some of the defining events of the 20th and 21st centuries also struck me as a bit disingenuous, and unnecessary: Honoré should have merely let the plot stand on its own merits.
But needless confusion and obfuscation is the name of the game here, and Honoré appropriately loses track of his filmic salutes as well. He clearly is indebted to the New Wave, but can’t decide if he wants Beloved to be a Jacques Demy tribute, a tangled Truffaut love web, or a dark Louis Malle trudge through the night. Honoré perhaps thinks that the result passes for a deft melding of genres and filmmakers, but it is merely a bewildering and off-putting mess that no song or dance number could hope to salvage.