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TIFF: 'Les Bien-Aimés' is not quite 'Chansons d'amour', but still an epic, bittersweet, musical love fest

Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés) ***

From 1964 to 2007, from the Prague Spring to 9/11, from Paris to London to Montréal, the women in Les Bien-Aimés (or “Beloved” in English-speaking markets) are madly chasing after love. But what kind of love, where they’ll find it and whether it'll be sustained? That’s what this visually dazzling though by turns derivative 130-minute musical dramedy from the director of Ma Mère, Dans Paris and Les Chansons d'amour is all about. The bittersweet tale follows Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier in the ‘60s, later Catherine Deneuve), a whimsical part-time hooker (an apropos trade given the period’s libertine politics) who falls for a Czech client (Rasha Bukvic in the ‘60s, later Milos Forman), and her daughter Véra (real-life Deneuve daughter Chiara Mastroianni in later years), as they hunt down that elusive ‘love’ with an uppercase L.


Les Bien-Aimés, a feel-good choice for closing film at Cannes this year, features Honoré’s holy trinity of muses (Sagnier/Mastroianni/Louis Garrel), his homages to the ‘60s French New Wave via Demy (Les parapluies de Cherbourg) and Truffaut (L’homme qui aimait les femmes), his slew of entertainingly po-mo musical outbursts (courtesy of frequent Honoré collaborator Alex Beaupain), and a story that touches upon the fleeting nature of time, political history, AIDS, and the myriad manifestations of love. Mastroianni gets the meatiest part, as her character is compelled to rethink her perspective on romantic love after falling hard for a gay American musician (Paul Schneider).

There’s even a Montreal chapter to the story, as we experience 9/11 through the prism of the Quartier Latin and a downtown hotel. (Ed’s Note: NIGHTLIFE.CA contributor Dustin Segura-Suarez, fresh off his bold performance as a young Montrealer in Honoré’s Homme au bain, shines in an understated turn as Schneider’s New York boyfriend.)


Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve in 'Les Bien-Aimés'

 

As an Honoré fan, I found myself occasionally frustrated with the narrative veering off on too many tangents of visual razzle-dazzle, while at other times feeling like a rehash of the director’s perennial preoccupations. But even though the film’s extensive running time never feels quite justified, Les Bien-Aimés remains a poignant and at times rousing celebration of love, and an interesting look at the sharp generational divide regarding love, between baby boomers and today’s young adults. For Deneuve’s Madeleine, love is carefree, liberating and devoid of angst, whereas for Mastroianni’s Véra, it comes with a heavy burden of (post-divorce) skepticism, (post-AIDS) danger, and a wealth of concerns that never bogged down her parents. Les Biens-Aimés is a markedly ambitious undertaking for Honoré. Save for a few scenes that could have been cut, it’s an epic, bittersweet love story, minus the happily-ever-after mumbo jumbo. And isn't that why we turn to French cinema in the first place?
 

Saturday, September 17 | Scotiabank Theatre 2 | 9:30pm
Toronto International Film Festival | Until September 18 | tiff.net