Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 19, 2012 2:42 pm 
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No, my child, you will not love a gay man

The 42-year-old Honoré has been prolific since he first drew attention with his 2003 My Mother/Ma mère, a dreary, incest-ridden film featuring Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel (the latter in every one of the director's films since). The French critics liked My Mother better than the public, a pattern that has continued, though with a less dramatic disparity. In Paris/Dans Paris followed in 2006, then Love Songs/Les Chansons d'amour the next year, and in 2008 La Belle Personne, which loosely, perhaps too loosely, transfers Madame de Lafayette's 17th-century novel La Princesse de Cllèves to a chic Paris lyçée and features the new French hottie du jour Léa Seydoux (of Farewell, My Queen) -- and as usual Louis Garrel, who brought humor to the depressed Dans Paris (featuring Romain Duris) this time adding casual immorality as as the philandering lyçée prof. Honoré moved more in the direction of a complex neurotic family drama (à la Arnaud Duplechin, whose Christmas Tale also featured Chiara Mastroianni and her mother) with his 2009 Non, ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser/Making Plans for Léna. Garrel has only a very minor role in Léna, but he seems required to show up, as much a muse for Honoré as lately for his father, Philippe Garrel. Originally from the provinces, Honoré seems to revel in Parisian atmosphere, particularly in Dans Paris, Love Songs, and La Belle personne; he also often takes the French New Wave as a rough model, sometimes with more success than almost any other French filmmaker working today. The New Wave ability to breeze through lives and crises (as in Jules et Jim) may inform Honoré's offhand, casual approach to tragedy. He seems to like veering off in a completely new direction in the middle of a film. Style, a look, and the beautiful actors he works with pull things together. That effect may be a little strained this time though -- too many decades, and too many new and unrelated cast members. (But the new film has received some delicate French homages.)

Honoré's latest, Beloved/Les bien-aimés, which was the closing night film at Cannes 2011 out of competition and opened in the US in the summer of 2012, again is full of songs by Alex Beaupain, like Love Songs. Since Beaupain writes his own distinctive words as well as the music, his vision permeates the film, or might have done, but it gets a bit swamped by the melodrama and the sweeping chronology. Beloved isn't much like Love Songs, which closely observes the unities of time and place. It doesn't focus on a few characters (a love triangle) or dive deep into a Paris quartier. It's more ambitious, covering decades and generations. The effect is more diffuse, meandering, and scattershot. The film doesn't seem one of Honoré's successes, but Alex Beaupain's songs are still charming and personal and at least some of the cast light up the screen -- Louis Garrel, Chiara Mastroianni, and her mother Catherine Deneuve playing her film mother. At 130 minutes, it all goes on a little too long -- and a trimmed down film would have had more narrative drive. Those who have resisted the charms of this very French director won't be convinced by Beloved. But if you stick with it, there are some very good moments, though the whole never melds together with the songs as it does in Les Chansons d'amour.

By now Chiara Mastroianni has become as important as Louis Garrel in Honoré's work. Léna gave her her biggest role to date, but she was already memorable as the gloomy sister in Love Songs, and now in Beloved she spends the last long segment of the film following around a gay American musician with AIDS (Paul Schneider). Mastroianni's beauty must come mostly from her mother, Catherine Deneuve, but her melancholy air seems more from Marcello. Beloved begins more lightly, in a half humorous, mythical vein with Ludivigne Sagnier, who played the girlfriend of Garrel who drops dead outside a club in Love Songs , shifting that film's tone. This time Sagnier is the young Madeleine, it's the Sixties, and Honoré doesn't kill her off. He simply turns her into Catherine Deneuve (as the older Madeleine) decades and several husbands later. (It would be nice if Sagnier became so beautiful in her sixties, but it seems unlikely: Honoré arbitrarily splices in actors he likes working with.)

At first it's all a lark: young Madeleine becomes a street walker as if by chance, by stealing a pair of beautiful high heeled shoes and trying them out on the trottoir. She lands a foreigner, Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), who will later return as Milos Forman (again, with no particular resemblance). The action in these early scenes is simple, classic, Nouvelle Vague-ish, and fun. The voiceover tells us all this is the rose-colored retelling of Madeleine's daughter with Jaromil. This is Véra, who grows up to be Chiara Mastroianni. (Who also grows a new mother, her real one.) Jaromil can't stay in France, so he and Madeleine go to live in Prague. It's '68, and during the Prague Sprint, Madeline finds out Jaromil is (very blithely) cheating on her. She takes Véra back to live in France.

One French critic (Philippe Azoury) comments that in Beloved Honoré his trying here to blend Miland Kundera with Jacques Demy; but Demy's lightness was never unbearable; here it eventually is. The next segment is in 1978. Madeleine is now married to François, a Republican Guard (ichel Delpech). Jaromil visits Paris; he and Madeleine fall into each other's arms again. Jaromil suggests dropping François and and getting back with him, if he'll stay in France; but this doesn't pan out.

Skip to 1997 when Véra takes center stage, visiting London with her writer boyfriend Clément (Louis Garrel, who livens things up for a while). Véra falls for Henderson (Paul Schneider), who shows a powerful sexual attraction to her, but also declares he's gay -- and later contracts AIDS. This does not go down well with Clément. At this point the tone of the opening chapter is long forgotten. Véra's hopeless passion for Henderson cannot end happily. The contrast is between the blithe love and marriages of Véra's mother, the Madonna-whore she sees in the idealized picture she narrates in the early scenes, and the commitment-averse Véra herself, who perhaps chooses an impossible mate on purpose. And their scenes together, though jarring in the large context of Madeleine's amorous ronde of a life and her street-walker youth, are often touching and real even if they belong in another picture. The story also jumpts to Sept. 11, 2001, which it shows from the POV of foreign travelers caught in mid-journey.

Does this sound like material for Demy? It also tends to overwhelm the songs of Alex Beaupain, which don't grow out of the scenes as organically as they do in Love Songs, though they still represent a poetic equivalent of the emotions of the character who sings them. Apart from those songs Beloved has lines and moments that sing, if only for an instant. This moviee's success as well as its failure come from the independent way Honoré always works. His films are (often, not always) light, and within French cinematic tradition, but he is not trying to make crowd-pleasers. He sticks with actors he loves and styles, sometimes borrowed but often, when in the New Wave vein, nicely manipulated, that he is comfortable with. But he also likes to experiment each time. He could not repeat Love Songs. For those of us who love it, that might be nice, but the appeal of this director (if also in a way his limitation) is that he keeps changing. You might call Beloved a redo of Love Songs multiplied by four or five; one loses count of the love triangles. While Making Plans for Léna took on complicated family and life issues and placed at its center a woman who can never quite make up mind, it's in Beloved that the director seems to have finally taken on a bit more than he can handle. But there is a lot here and I feel (or hope) that Beloved will reveal new pleasures in subsequent viewings. If not, as in all Honoré's films since he slipped into high gear a decade ago, there will always be, through thick and thin, a gaggle of impossibly handsome and beautiful actors to gawk at, and I, for one, look forward to watching Alex Beaupain's new suite of songs by themselves and listening more carefully to the words.

The Variety reviewer Boyd van Hoeij wrote at Cannes that this will have "slightly longer legs than 'Songs' at home and abroad," and it would be nice if Honoré connected more with the American audience.

Les bien-aimés opened in France August 24, 2011 to excellent reviews (Allociné press: 3.7) and in the UK May 11, the US August 17, 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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