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In a scene close to the end of Les bien-aimés we see Catherine Deneuve struggling with an umbrella. And cue: the realm of meta-film commentary on French musicals, with specific reference to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, another story of mothers, daughters and second-best loves.
To make it quite clear, one of the main characters in both these variants on a musical is called Madeleine. Instead of umbrellas, however, Les bien-aimés starts with a pair of shoes, stolen by young Madeleine from her employer in the early 1960s. Mistaken for a high-end whore, she begins to turn the occasional trick to supplement her income. Some years later: it’s 1968, Madeleine has married a former client, a Czech doctor, and is living is Prague with their daughter when the Russian tanks roll in.
A decade later and she’s back in Paris, with another man (but missing the first) and a daughter struggling to decipher the emotional chaos around her. And so on, past AIDS and 9/11 to a dismal end in 2007. The musical aspect consists of chansons sung as periodic commentary on events.
Deneuve plays the elder Madeleine to her real-life daughter’s Vera (Chiara Mastroianni). Their evident chemistry is the prime noteworthy aspect of this film (along with Miloš Forman as Deneuve’s first husband). As for the rest? The theory that carefree girls have the heaviest hearts is not new – and the use of iconic historical events as harbingers of extra woe is simply trite, obscuring the film’s main concern: various ways of loving. You can get away with a lot by singing about it. But not everything.
Les bien-aimés (Die Liebenden) | Directed by Christophe Honoré (France, UK, Czech Republic 2011) with Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Ludivine Sagnier. Starts May 3