Like his 2007 film Love Songs, Christophe Honoré’s Beloved takes the form of a whimsical modern musical, but deals with subject matter that isn’t whimsical at all—infidelity, political instability, heartbreak, HIV, suicide, and 9/11. When its characters burst into scruffy song, which they do often, it’s with a surfeit of bittersweet emotion, as if mere spoken dialogue can’t contain all they’re feeling. A rambling, messy, but ultimately charming film that spans several decades and countries, Beloved is the story of a mother and daughter who love intensely, but rarely well, their desires leading them down paths that include prostitution and unhappy three-ways. Honoré’s combination of contemporary romantic hijinks and the stylization inherent in the musical genre aren’t juxtaposed ironically: Beloved is a tenderly sincere musical that celebrates love even as it acknowledges the ways in which it can sometimes lead to tragedy.
Ludivine Sagnier stars as a young woman in the ’60s who takes up streetwalking without really intending to, then falls for one of her clients, a handsome Czech doctor (Radivoje Bukvic). She follows him home to Prague, where they have a daughter. Though their marriage eventually falls apart and she weds someone else, they’re still drawn together over the years, as they’re played later on by Catherine Deneuve and Milos Forman. In the ’90s, Sagnier’s grown daughter (Deneuve’s real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni) pursues love with an almost menacing dedication—while a coworker (Louis Garrel, in his sixth film with Honoré) adores and pines for her, she falls for a gay American musician (Paul Schneider) who likes her but can’t give her the relationship she wants.
As overheated as these love triangles sound, they’re played in straightforward, genuinely touching ways. Honoré may be taking a page from Jacques Demy with his form, but the world in which Beloved takes place is particular to him in its flexible, accommodating sexuality. Its characters end up in bed with each other with startling ease, but the film has a generous openness about sex, and how little it can actually have to do with the state of one’s heart. Neither Deneuve nor Mastroianni are, onscreen, inclined to fidelity, and the film relishes that freedom while acknowledging that it doesn’t necessarily line up with some greater happiness.