What makes a musical? Is it plenty of charm? Plenty of songs? Plenty of good story? Beloved has all of these, and yet it doesn’t quite work.
Beloved (Les bien-aimés) is a decade-jumping eulogy to the lastingness of love, and the ever-tarnished lives of those who manage to get tangled up in it. Its first twenty minutes are engrossing – in trendy Paris circa the 1960s, a shoe shop assistant Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier/Catherine Deneuve) decides to steal an expensive pair for herself. The result is, rather surprisingly but hilariously, her first foray into prostitution; this rapidly leads to a chance meeting with a foreign doctor, the birth of her daughter Vera (Chiara Mastroianni) and soon a life of love lost, regained, destroyed, and found anew.
But, just as the film is lifting off into a truly interesting story, the singing starts. Out of the blue, completely inconsistent with the tone established so far in the movie, is an incredibly boring musical number, complete with dancing in the street and the usual Singin’ in the Rain (1952) tropes. Even if you already know it’s a musical beforehand, the first song is so completely unbalancing, your heart will sink at the thought of what more disarming cheesiness the rest of the film is hiding up its sleeve.
In a way that’s almost merciful; the rest of Beloved is equally as inconsistent tonally for the rest of its mammoth duration of two hours and twenty-five minutes. This way, the badly-written songs, cringe-worthy but innocous on their own they may be, don’t get too much in the way. It’s a big shame, as the rest of the movie, removed from its surreal musical forays, holds up rather tightly as intense character studies over different periods of their lives. The dialogue, when not sung, actually allows these complex people not only to fight with one another and love one another, but also somewhere in between the two. The acting is also robust, and helps to offer some painful revelations from Henderson (Paul Schneider), Vera’s gay boyfriend.
However, the cinematography is rather pedestrian – it never fully gives itself to the generation-spanning scope of the story. The hues of each scene are rather drab, and not in an atmosphere-setting way; the most memorable images are from the first half of the film, where the vibrant ’60s settings accentuate the themes of new love. It’s unfortunate that there’s not much more visual flair and life in the rest of the picture.
But what Beloved does well is documenting the way Madeleine and her husband/ex-husband Jaromi (Milos Forman) keep coming back to one another; no matter how much spittle is exchanged, their relationship is a deep one and is conveyed almost perfectly, thanks to the actors and the script. But then… (music rolls)… they begin to sing. Again.
The latter half of this family saga is lynchpinned by the impact of 9/11; it’s not clear what director Christophe Honoré is trying to achieve with this, except to lend some ‘serious’ weight to the more intimate proceedings. And while the culmination is sincerely very sad, it’s undercut by the directionless, leisurely ambling of the whole work.
Sometimes soft and sweet, but mainly strangled by its own deluded ambitions, Beloved does succeed as a functioning tale of a family falling in and out of relationships but never out of love. It just also happens to think it’s The Sound of Music.