Like Mother, Like Daughter, by Scott Nye
The melodrama and the musical are closely related, and have long coexisted in relative harmony. Both genres deal with outsized emotions; one just typically ends in yelling or cry while the other results in song. In the late 1940s and 1950s, in fact, they were often indistinguishable from one another, utilizing widescreen photography, lavish sets, and the boldest, brightest Technicolor, to the point at which one dipping into the other felt commonplace. To have a Cyd Charisse dance number in the middle of Party Girl feels right, even if her character wasn’t a performer by trade. Similarly, to see the characters in It’s Always Fair Weather deal honestly with the malaise of life following World War II, in a manner that would not be out of place in The Best Years of Our Lives, is a natural extension of the sometimes buoyant, sometimes melancholy songs that punctuate the drama. Hell, earlier this year, Valérie Donzelli flawlessly inserted a musical number into a drama about pediatric cancer. And sometimes the two are so perfectly fused, so inseparable from one another that you wonder how they could ever exist apart (I’m looking at you, Meet Me in St. Louis).
But one has to be careful with this balance, for when wandering into the forest of melodrama, one may be tempted to let things rest at the lake of soap opera. A fine line separates the two, but essentially, cheap melodrama usually results from drama imposed upon, rather than originating from, its characters. And as much as a melodramatic musical seems tailor-made for me, Beloved was anything but. Telling a decades-spanning story of a young woman, Madeleine (played at first by Ludivine Sagnier, and later by Catherine Deneuve) who takes up prostitution after being mistaken for a hooker (as promising a start to a film as you’re likely to see), only to marry one of her johns, we then follow the disintegration of that marriage, which nevertheless managed to produce one very curious, troubled child. Decades later, Véra (Chiara Mastroianni) will spend her nights bar-hopping and picking up equally-lost men, most notably for the film’s purposes an American drummer named Henderson (Paul Schneider), the perfect guy in every way if only he were straight.
The set-up is promising enough, don’t get me wrong, particularly once it gets into the meat of the story, in which Madeleine is never quite able to quit Jaromil, her Polish customer-turned-husband. Whatever the obstacles – war, language, citizenship, infidelity, other marriages – they are inexorably drawn back together, and their scenes easily account for the film’s better musical interludes. Jaromil is a bit of a creep, perhaps, responsible as he is for their initial separation, and almost predatory in their reunion (not to mention his sing-songy fascination with how his estranged daughter is growing into herself, so to speak), but writer/director Christophe Honorè deftly keeps both he and Madeleine mutually destructive. She’s more than a little irresponsible herself, given easily to seduction, even more careless with her own infidelity, and not particularly concerned with how her teenaged daughter when she declares they’ll flee the country with a man who, though he may be her father, might as well be a stranger.
Their relationship becomes all the more intriguing as the years go on. There is a tendency in cinema to relegate elderly people to near-saintly roles, dispensing endless wisdom and the occasional off-color joke to show they’re still “with it.” Honorè, to his credit, easily illustrates that Madeleine and Jaromil very much remain people who are still growing, even if they’ve come to just accept their numerous faults. In casting Deneuve and renowned director Milos Forman, he did himself no small favor either. Both are totally natural screen presences; reflexively charming and free from any sense of self-awareness. Had Honorè focused solely on these two, he’d have a slightly problematic, but still warm and resonant film on his hands.
Véra is another matter altogether. Her storyline is plagued with intrusions from the outside world, be they issues of sexuality, disease, chronic depression, parental adultery, or even, oh yes even that, 9/11. Her storyline never really clicks, in no small part because she never really finds her hook in the story. She’s wishy-washy, dependent-yet-defiant, and non confrontational, adding up to a very sharply-defined character who is nevertheless not nearly interesting enough, cinematically. She has no real personality, just endless amounts of baggage. She loosely raises her arms, not in an effort to prevent or erase the ongoing carnage surrounding her, but more to look away from it. That Mastroianni is the daughter, born far out of wedlock, of Deneuve and screen legend Marcello Mastroianni lends the film a certain extra-cinematic texture, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it’s hardly enough to carry what increasingly becomes her film, and a very thin one at that.
It’s also worth noting that the film never really explodes, musically. This isn’t a mere matter of something being lost in translation, as noted French musical The Young Girls of Rochefort has long been among my favorite films, but more because the numbers, with rare exceptions (Jaromil’s post-divorce seduction of Madeleine is quite something) aren’t very enthusiastic or resonant. There isn’t much in the way of choreography or expressive camera movement, and the songs themselves are neither catchy nor expressive. They tend to restate a lot of onscreen action without extending it or becoming something wholly their own.
Despite some fine performances and one especially winning pair, Beloved is weighted by too many problems endemic of so many modern musicals. Grand without being spectacular, it’s more intent on tackling all the problems of life without stopping to consider the question of life. Not that every film needs to seek this, but one this expansive and inclusive is clearly heading there anyway. It just never quite arrives.