When Maurice Chevalier burbled Sprechgesang imprecations in The Love Parade, it was a feat of minimalist ardor, representing a different avenue for often overblown talkie musicals. When Anouk Aimée and Marc Michel further Gallicized the practice in Jacques Demy’s Lola, it was a stylistic choice, echoing their characters’ inability to transcend the humdrum tedium of their lives. When it’s deployed in Christophe Honoré’s Beloved, it’s because we’ve gone 20 minutes without a musical number, and there’s an emotional plot point in need of some severe underlining.
Already seeming more than a bit unnecessary, the song numbers here are also repetitive and austerely choreographed, which would be one thing if this technique had some intended purpose. Honoré’s intent is hard to determine, however, which leaves us with a series of gimmicky, under-sketched diversions in a movie already bursting at the seams with content. Usually tossed in the wake of large events, these half-spoken ditties fulfill the same purpose as bad voiceover narration, highlighting obvious emotions and repeating things that have already been suggested. The intrusion of overly didactic songs is usually forgivable in musicals, but the productions here are so groggily delivered that they come off as the most extraneous of all the fluff floating around Beloved, which has the core of a great love story (or two) encased somewhere in its hunk of unfinished marble.
Threading the story of a mother’s repeated dalliances with a Czech doctor in with her daughter’s romantic travails, Beloved has scope and range and more well developed characters than it knows what to do with. Honoré has made a habit of not hewing to standard dramatic cues, an inclination that grants his work an exciting malleability: multiple major players get killed off in the second act; climax-worthy action occurs in the first. In Love Songs, such moves were liberating, with the director plucking off one side of a love triangle to see what was going on inside, rather than conducting the usual exercise of watching the structure collapse on its own. But what’s cute in 90 minutes becomes a slog at 135.
To summarize what happens within would be unfeasible and probably pointless. Suffice it to say that there are strong, melancholy turns from Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni; Louis Garrel further establishes himself as this generation’s Jean-Pierre Léaud; and Paul Schneider proves that he can handle meaty dramatic material (he’s not so good at singing or realistically delivering French dialogue). His HIV-afflicted drummer, a kind of unattainable object for Mastroianni’s daughter character, shows up a few times before unceremoniously vanishing, a decision that highlights the film’s propensity for proudly presented patchiness.
Beholden to such irregularities, Beloved is ultimately crammed at a frustrating juncture between period-piece froth (it at times seems to be channeling François Ozon’s recent Potiche) and seriously conceived drama, never tipping its hand toward either. Like Ma Mère, which darted between squirmy character-based horror and inane, solemn sex farce, it’s never entirely clear what Honoré’s murky freeform storytelling is aiming for.