With Love Songs, his 2007 musical, French writer-director Christophe Honore updated such 1960s bonbons as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for our age of expanded erotic frankness and possibility. Beloved, Honore's second musical, goes even farther, layering death, AIDS and Sept. 11 among the merry melodies.
This stylish film is enormous fun, whirling and warbling across four decades of amour. But it stumbles a few times in its last half-hour and ultimately seems a little too frisky for the graver issues it addresses.
Like Love Songs, Beloved employs conversational chansons written by Alex Beaupain. Smartly, however, Honore widens the musical universe by including songs — or bits of them — by others. This does more than enlarge the film's musical range. It also suits the internationalist scenario, which includes chapters set in Prague, London and Montreal.
Honore announces his cosmopolitan intentions with a kicky opening sequence, celebrating chic '60s women's footwear to the tune of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," sung in French. The montage ends with a Parisian shoe-shop clerk's impulsive appropriation of a pair of red heels.
The thief is Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier), and her crime will lead to bigger ones. Since she's wearing flashy shoes, Madeleine is mistaken for a hooker, a role she decides to adopt. Her new trade leads to an assignation with a Czech doctor, Jaromil Passer. (His name is a tribute to Czech filmmakers Jaromil Jires and Ivan Passer, and the older version of the character will later be played, slyly, by Czech-American director Milos Forman.)
Madeleine and the younger Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic) marry, move to Prague and have a daughter, Vera. After a few years, Madeleine discovers that her husband is cheating on her (oh, and, by the way, that Russian tanks are chugging into Prague). So Madeleine takes Vera back to Paris and acquires a second husband (Michel Delpech).
Madeleine remains in love with love — and Jaromil — as she ages into a grande dame played by Catherine Deneuve. The Iron Curtain weakens, so Jaromil can return, part-time, to Madeleine's life. Vera grows up to be just as romantically inclined as her mother. But as an adult (played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter) she's unable to succumb to intimacy — until she meets what is unquestionably the wrong guy.
On a trip to London with her petulant co-worker and sometime lover (Louis Garrel), Vera falls for an American drummer, Henderson (Paul Schneider). They first encounter each other while his band is playing a stark, ethereal version of — what else? — Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" The expat musician finds Vera intriguing, but he's gay.
Vera and Henderson's relationship, like Madeleine and Jaromil's, lingers for years. But Vera will take a lot less pleasure from her not-quite partner than her mom does from hers. Even the two affairs' conclusions, although parallel, are very different in tone.
Honore has been hailed as the heir to the French new wave, and while his work is not as difficult as theirs, it does emulate Godard and Rivette in verve and playfulness. Like those predecessors, Honore smudges the lines between art and life, narrative and theme.
Why, for example, does Beloved take trips to London? Probably because the story was greatly inspired by British music; the soundtrack includes a version of a Kinks song, lyrics borrowed from the Smiths, and tunes by U.K. cult bands the Gist and Everything But the Girl.
Yet Beloved is ultimately very French — and very Honore, with his insistence on passion's unruliness and physicality. In his musicals, songs are tidy and sweet, but love is messy and often bitter.