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With “Beloved,” writer-director Christophe Honoré’s love affair with the French New Wave — and particularly the tart cotton-candy fantasias spun by Jacques Demy in the 1960s — gets stretched to the breaking point. Honoré immediately gets our attention by casting Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni as mother and daughter, since we can only assume their real-life intimacy will bleed onto the screen. And it does. But they’re not the only ones bleeding.
The film begins in the Paris of four decades ago, with an avid blond shopgirl named Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) deciding she can get more money and thrills working as a prostitute. The colors onscreen pop, the music soars; Honoré seems to be laying the groundwork for a wholesale remake of Demy’s 1964 classic, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which of course starred the young Deneuve.
Instead, “Beloved” turns out to be a much darker work, one that pushes slowly into our modern age of disenchantment and neuroses. Madeleine falls for one of her tricks, a Czech engineer named Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic), and follows him back to Prague just in time for the Russian tanks to roll in. He leaves her with a child and a romantic torch that burns despite her eventual marriage to a stolid Frenchman (Guillaume Denaiffe).
The girl, Véra, grows up to be played by Mastroianni, while Sagnier’s Madeleine morphs into the older, wiser Deneuve. Now based in London, the daughter repeats the mother’s romantic indecisions, torn between an adoring ex-boyfriend named Clément (Honoré regular Louis Garrel) and an American drummer named Henderson (Paul Schneider). Henderson loves Véra, too, but he’s gay and HIV-positive, which only proves that in French films generally and Honoré’s films especially, you don’t get a say in who your heart picks.
You do get to sing about it, though. Like the director’s “Songs of Love” (2007) and very much like “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Beloved” allows its lovelorn characters to express themselves in bursts of pensive, whispery French chanson. The gambit works intermittently: Alex Beaupain’s melodies aren’t very memorable, and the lyrics repeatedly plow a narrow rut of love’s-a-pain-but-what-can-you-do. A key refrain, sung by mother and daughter to different louses in different eras, goes “I can’t live with you, but I can’t live without loving you.”
The scenes between the two actresses are tender and informed by a deep and natural empathy. Maybe too deep; we sense there’s a private language here that doesn’t quite make it to the screen. There are moments of unexpected wonder — Véra wandering into a nightclub and becoming the center of a languorous dance number, as though she were an accidental Cyd Charisse — but too much of “Beloved” feels hermetic, and at two hours and 19 minutes, it tries your patience. The film wears its emotions on its sleeve but keeps its thoughts to itself.
At 40, Mastroianni is looking more and more like her father, Marcello Mastroianni. She has his eyes and that air of existential befuddlement, and she’s beginning to suggest the magnificent ruin he became in his later career. Honoré’s camera adores her and her mother alike, and rightly so; “Beloved” indulges in rich, indolent close-ups that feel like thumbnail histories of European cinema.
But then he’ll dispatch the aging Jaromil (played by director Milos Forman) with a random tree branch, or cue a climactic act of self-immolation to scenes of 9/11, and you can feel the movie reach and miss. There’s a weariness to this movie that’s only partly romantic and that is given repeated voice on the soundtrack by a cover of the great lost Kinks masterpiece “I Go to Sleep.” Honoré’s a genuinely gifted eccentric of a filmmaker, but on the evidence of “Beloved,” he could use a nap.