The French have always had a difficult relationship with musicals, or as they call them, les comédies musicales. The form is one of America’s principal cultural ties to its erstwhile colonizer. Of course, the dialogue is not limited to Gilbert & Sullivan and Sondheim, but extends across genres with shows in perpetual rotation between the West End and Broadway; a show is only to close in New York to be transferred to London to close in London to be revived in New York. If British and American politicians could achieve the same level of spirited collaboration in the “special relationship” as the West End and Broadway, it could have enormous geopolitical benefits. Though, Anglo-American diplomatic intercourse, perversely cordial or otherwise, is not our concern here. This brief aside was only meant to demonstrate the theatrical intimacy between the UK and the US and their adoption of many of the same forms and conventions. As a general rule, for all of the cross-pollination between French artists and their Anglo-Saxon peers, la tradition française has stood in contrast to their Norman descendants, especially when it comes to musicals.
For all that, musicals owe their existence to a Frenchman. Hevré established the light comic operas, or opérettes, which were popularized by the German born French composer Offenbach. The opérettes leapt across the channel where they lost their courtisane stars and became respectably English. Perhaps it is this association with middle-class virtue that has attracted such derision on the continent. Christophe Honoré’s new musical film Les bien-aimés (Beloved) may break with the traditional Gallic snub for English probity, but it is not without precedent. Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) was an unexpected succès fou in France. And yet it would be unwise to too closely associate the two. Demy’s film was a Technicolor tribute to Hollywood; M. Honoré’s film is in dialogue with its Tinseltown counterparts, not in fealty.
The film’s release coincides with a growing acceptance by the French of musical theatre. This coincides with gradual tolerance of ‘family values’ and ‘middle class morality’ that is perhaps inevitable when le Président de la République serves Muscadet at official receptions in lieu of Champagne, but it is also a response to the metamorphoses in musicals from Anything Goes to Avenue Q. Whatever cultural détente exists across the channel and the Atlantic, M. Honoré, with his composer Alex Beaupain, have grown this musical out of a decidedly French terroir.
Just so, the songs in Les biens-aimés are born of the film and the rich minerality of its soil. There is no flash, no razzle dazzle, but the songs are effortlessly unspooled so that they come to appear as inevitable as thread from Clotho, the spinner of Fate. They are inevitable not in their quickly foreseen arrival, but in their natural expression of each character’s thoughts.
The story spans forty-five years and begins with Ludivine Sagnier as Madeleine. Caught off guard when the stilettos she lifted from her employer turn heads, she indignantly refuses an indecent proposal by a passerby— until he comes up with a better offer. Her daughter Véra (vibrantly incarnated by a melancholic Chiara Mastroianni) narrates the scene with a characteristic bittersweet sigh; her mother always told her that if she hadn’t been a sometime prostitute she would have landed in prison. (Prostitution, unlike petty theft, is legal in France.) Véra’s sighs would have been no more than possibilities if her mother hadn’t met her husband and Véra’s father Jaromil on the job. Those who foolishly choose to miss this film will not understand the innocence and nostalgia in Madeleine’s liaison with Jaromil, or its underlying sweetness. This perspective is not so much a continental ease with prostitution, as it is the fragrance of nostalgia that suffuses these early scenes.
Véra grows up and Madeleine transforms into Catherine Deneuve playing the role she plays in life, Mlle. Mastroianni’s mother. The passage of time moves us from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to Rent territory. Part of the charm of the film is its graceful manner of projecting our period expectations, and neither subverting them nor reasserting them, while simultaneously folding them into each era’s self-perception. (The cinematographer, Rémy Chevrin translates these movements across time in perfectly articulated lighting.) Véra may not follow her mother in matrimony, but her relationships with men are even more complicated, if only because she has more to deal with. There is her colleague and friend (Louis Garrel) whom she cannot love and a gay musician she meets in London (Paul Schneider) whom she cannot help loving. Her fractured relationship with her father (played in age by Milos Forman) is complicated by her mother’s periodical dalliances with her now ex-husband.
Les bien-aimés might be anchored by the relationship between Véra and Madeleine, but it does not define it. There is something whole in this, a contrast to many American narratives where ‘chick-flicks’ dominate (the name is abhorrent as the category, as are most of the films). Here mother daughter relationships or sisterly friendships do not exclude men or posit another allegiance to another species. The love M. Honoré embraces is not a romantic, platonic, or a filial love; it is a catholic one that has room enough and time for all.
We have come to expect moneylenders in the temple of Venus, so it is remarkable and joyous when we are not being sold tears but assailed with the wished for catastrophe of Love—nowhere more than in M. Honoré’s Les bien-aimés.
Les bien-aimés (Beloved) opens today in Manhattan.