A razzledazzle musical reprise of Man At Bath, Christophe Honoré’s Beloved is a fractured but enjoyable romp through the swinging Sixties and nervous Noughties.
This Is Not A Love Song by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Christophe Honoré leads a double life. And while the first forms the basis of his most popular film Les Chansons d’Amour, with Catherine Deneuve and Louis Garrel gallicly singing their way up and down the boulevards of Paris with all the frolicsome colourfulness of a Jacques Demy film, the other is the seedier underworld of Ma Mère and L’Homme Au Bain, both infused with a tabooed sexuality worthy of Georges Bataille. Beloved though couldn’t be more different from L’Homme Au Bain. Shot in grainy handheld digital and flowing freely between fiction and documentary, Man At Bath is set largely amidst suburban Paris’s tower blocks with former porn star and would-be actor François Sagat as the jilted lover whose ex-boyfriend heads across the Atlantic to promote his film. And yet Les Bien-Aimés is a curious companion piece to L’Homme Au Bain – only brasher, better looking and with a lot more money.
Beloved opens with a multicoloured riot of Seventies pastels – pink, blue and white, in bright comparison to the digital mutedness of Man At Bath. But despite their apparent differences, there are still plenty of threads connecting the two films. Chiara Mastroianni, who plays herself in Man At Bath, finds a fictional role here as Véra, the grown-up daughter of Madeleine, (incorporated in the past by Ludivine Sagnier, and by Catherine Deneuve in the present). Véra falls in love with Henderson, a gay American with AIDS living in London. And despite Les Bien-Aimés’ predominantly straight narrative, here we dip briefly into an alternative gay story strata, with glimpses of characters borrowed from Man At Bath – the mustachioed filmmaker Omar at his flat, and Matthieu, Omar’s Canadian fling, at Henderson’s side in Montreal.
Les Bien-Aimés may be the straight younger brother to Man At Bath, yet it’s the irreconcilability of Véra and Henderson’s mutual attraction with their sexual identities which forms the contemporary narrative and provides the film’s tragic pathos. It’s an interesting, if not entirely novel, conceit – of love in the post-sexuality age where gay men can fall for attractive women. Henderson’s fascination is astonishing, crowned in toilet cubicle cunnilingus and a macho doorstep slap, but it does in fact echo Honoré’s own beautifully lensed and intimately adoring close-ups, whirling round a statuesque Mastroianni. But more than just a director’s love for his leading lady, Beloved‘s moral frontiers are complicated further by the spectre of AIDS. We may have to look beyond the narrative implications of a homosexual bringing the “gay disease” into a straight relationship, but it’s a narrative twist that makes a 21st century chaste romance conveniently credible, more careful than carefree.
After four years in the wilderness, pining for an impossible love and complaining to her fellow teacher and one-hit writer Clément, played by a lank Louis Garrel at his most Raskolnikovian, Véra flies to meet Henderson on September 11th 2001. Unable to land in New York, her flight is diverted to Montreal and Henderson drives up from the Big Apple to meet her. Véra is desperate to have Henderson’s baby, unable to live without loving him, or accept an end to their glimpsed love. But skirting round the subject of female biological urges and the risk of AIDS, Honoré’s interest in this very contemporary dilemma isn’t so much the threesome that might make it happen as the taboos of a woman willing to contract AIDS to have a baby and Véra’s would-be shocking 9/11 dance. Admittedly, it’s a shameful swansong, but neither lighthearted nor disrespectful, just a lonely woman lost in her own world. Nevertheless, it’s an unfortunate end for Véra, Chiara Mastroianni’s irrepressible luminosity sacrificed to the script as Véra’s slow, shuffling overdose ties her to an impossible relationship indefinitely. With no escape but death.
Les Bien-Aimés though is a film of two halves. Away from the delicate quandaries of the contemporary, lies the story of Véra’s mother Madeleine. It’s a Technicolor world of Parisian fashion and cheeky ambition, echoed by the French cover Ces Bottes Sont Faites Pour Marcher. Madeleine’s flagrant shoe theft is almost guiltless, brazen and carefree. But instead of turning to larceny, she funds her lifestyle with pocketmoney johns as a pute occasionelle. It’s worlds away from the modern story, easygoing and sexy, and its story is aptly told in stilettos and brogues, its seductive charm solicited in an elegant scissoring of legs. Veering off into songs like La Tour Eiffel T’Ennuie Déjà, Mon Coeur Bat Plus Vite Quand Tu Penses A Moi or Les Chiens Ne Font Pas Des Chats, it’s a musical narrative that charts, in breathy easy-listening tunes, Madeleine’s romance with Jaromil, her move to Prague, his adultery, her return to Paris and her loveless marriage with dependable cavalryman François Gouriot.
The prologue’s musical brio even seeps into the modern story, with Chiara Mastroianni diva-dancing in a London nightclub, as well as her London Calling duet with Henderson on a spot-lit staircase. There’s also a flamboyant time-crossing quartet, sung by Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni in the present and by Clara Couste and Ludivine Sagnier in the past, as well as a playful nod to Demy’s Les Parapluies De Cherbourg in an aerial shot of opening black umbrellas. But while Madeleine’s musical backstory is a nostalgically entertaining look into the careless sexual mores of the Swinging Sixties, it’s the tragedy-filled confusion of the present that provides Beloved’s purpose. It’s not just a different kind of loving, it’s a different world in which modern lovers must find contentment with either loving or being loved. It’s not the fifty-year romance of Madeleine and Jaromil still cavorting in a hotel by the Gare de l’Est, but a maelstrom of wincing self-examination. Anxious temerity in lieu of epic passion.
Dedicated to Marie-France Pisier, star of Truffaut’s L’Amour En Fuite, Beloved is most certainly a story of love on the run; Madeleine on the run from monotony and monogamy, Véra running after a fleeting vision of love. And with all the lighthearted cavorting of a Nouvelle Vague comedy, Les Bien-Aimés knows how to have its cake and eat it. It’s glossy, starry and fun, but also serious, thought-provoking and dark. You might see Honoré’s collision of two worlds as a cynical attempt to hedge his bets, or bring a blockbuster budget to a smaller story, but really Beloved finds itself in this space between. Like The Kinks’ cover that closes the film I Go To Sleep, its modern story is a melancholic fade to black, a far cry from the colourful excesses of its other story. But it’s Honoré’s love of the whole colour spectrum which makes Beloved‘s blacks darker and its colours brighter.
Beloved is released on 11th May 2012 in the UK