French New Wave-obsessed director Christophe Honoré has included sing-a-long musical sequences in his films since the questionable climax of 2006’s Dans Paris. It was only inevitable that he would not only do an entire full-on musical—the appreciably downbeat Love Songs —but that he would do it again. Beloved, a casually cosmic French drama not to be confused with Toni Morrison’s tale of grief and guilt among post-Civil War ex-slaves, is his second film to work as a musical. Moreover, its subject is an even more unlikely fit for production numbers than his previous work.
Spanning decades, Beloved starts in the ‘60s with Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier), a pretty Parisian whose brief stint as a prostitute wins her Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), a dashing Czech who takes her to his home country just in time to catch the end of the Prague Spring. Sagnier is made to look like Umbrellas of Cherbourg-era Catherine Deneuve, which is appropriate since she will later be played by Deneuve herself, while her daughter, Véra, will be played by Deneuve’s own daughter Chiara Mastroianni. (Jaromil winds up played by director Milos Forman, who escaped Czechoslovakia to become the country’s most successful cinematic export.)
Véra, troubled and rootless, serves as the narrator and focal point, struggling with life and love and eventually settling for a kind of partnership with Paul Schneider’s Henderson, a gay American drummer who’s HIV-positive and thus, for her, doubly unattainable. But Honoré is an unusually detached dramatist who doesn’t mind offing major characters; Love Songs kills Sagnier with a disease within the first half hour. Beloved picks off parts of the main cast throughout its second half, but the effect is less ostentatious than in Love Songs and more about mimicking the casual indifference of life, which means that just because someone seems to be an ensemble film’s lynchpin doesn’t mean they’ll make it to the final act.
Honestly, Beloved is half tough-love realistic and half soap-opera nonsense, and its shape-shifting quality could be read as both true to life and as a lack of anything concrete to say. Honoré is at least excellent with actors and characters, although, just like in Love Songs, the songs stink.