France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic
136 minutes

Novelist-turned-director Christophe Honoré may be one of the most intriguing and consistent young filmmakers in modern French cinema. But with Les Bien-aimés he turns out both his most ambicious work, and his greatest misstep. Returning to the musical framework of his most successful film, Les Chansons d'amour (2007), here paired with the sentimental gravity of his finest work, La Belle personne (2008), Mr. Honoré attempts an updated, lovelorn family saga in a Jacques Demy-meets-François Truffaut style that, despite its stellar cast, never really gels.

     At heart, this is the tale of forty years in the life of Madeleine, who starts out in 1964 as a frothy shoe store salesgirl played by Ludivine Sagnier and finds love with a handsome Czech doctor (Rasha Bokvic) whom she marries and has a daughter with. But his philandering and the Prague spring break up the marriage, leading her to return and become the wife of a military man while keeping up an on-and-off affair with the ex-husband. The story moves forward in irregular increments, and by the 1990s Catherine Deneuve has taken up the role of Madeleine and Milos Forman that of the ex-husband, with their daughter Véra having grown up into Ms. Deneuve's own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. Véra seems fated to repeat her mother's mistake of falling in love with a man who doesn't love her back while spurring the one who does.

     And while there is nothing inherently wrong with the premise, it's Mr. Honoré's approach that rankles: Alex Beaupain's songs, seemingly inserted at random intervals, never truly fit the narrative and bring a misjudged frothiness into what is essentially a progressively darker and melancholy study of love. This worked on Les Chansons d'amour but doesn't here, with the effect of underlining the inability of the director in sustaining a cohesive tone throughout the film - best-seen in the unfortunately tone-deaf Canadian interlude set on 9/11, whose well-meaning attempt at juxtaposing global and personal tragedy is shockingly banal coming from someone we have known much more sensitive and attentive. The film's inexplicably leisurely construction, as a series of disjointed episodes stitched together to make a particular point, is also rather surprising coming from a writer.

     To be sure, there is good stuff here - the dialogue is often very sharp, the cast performs admirably (with a touching Ms. Deneuve front and center), and there are flashes of visual inventiveness (especially in the earlier, period sections) that suggest there's not much wrong with Les Bien-aimés that couldn't have been sorted out. But instead we have a sprawling, overlong wisp of a film that seems to have gotten lost on its way to the big screen.

Starring Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier, Louis Garrel, Paul Schneider, Milos Forman, Rasha Bokvic; and Michel Delpech.
     Directed by Christophe Honoré; written by mr. Honoré with Adam Thirlwell; music and songs by Alex Beaupain; director of photography (colour, processing by Éclair, widescreen), Rémy Chevrin; production designer, Samuel Deshors; costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne; film editor, Chantal Hymans.
     A Why Not Productions presentation of a Why Not Productions/France 2 Cinéma/Sixteen Films/Negativ co-production, with the participation of Canal Plus, France Télévisions, Orange Cinéma Séries; with the support of the Île-de-France Region, Sofica Soficinéma 7, Czech Motion Picture Support Fund, SACEM Support Fund. (French distributor, Le Pacte. World sales, Celluloid Dreams.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia King 1 (Lisbon), September 21st 2011.  


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