Christophe Honoré's moody, multigenerational musical Beloved begins as a winkingly sex-positive romp in which the '60s seem a wonderful time to buy clothing, and prostitution is promoted as a form of freedom. When young French half-time whore Madeleine (Ludivine Sagnier) ebulliently sings that she can live without her dashing Czech john and lover Jaromil (Rasha Bukvic) but cannot live without loving him, it seems we are entering a hazily nostalgic, alternate-universe The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, chockablock with campy bawd and high-strung passive aggression, with Sagnier's wildly neurotic features taking the place of Catherine Deneuve's clean perfections.
But it is not to be. You pretty much always know what type of love story it's going to be once the Soviet tanks roll into Prague. All romance in Beloved is mad, doomed, international, intermittent and utterly endless. Not content to merely let it rain when a character is sad, Honoré is willing to kill thousands of people to show you just how bad love hurts. If a marriage ends, the Russians take over your country. If a love is about to die, passenger planes strike the World Trade Center.
Although, as it turns out, Sagnier was playing Deneuve all along. As the film slowly shifts its focus to Madeleine's now-grown daughter Vera in the 1990s (a stunning Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter), a regally disappointed Deneuve appears as the sexagenarian Madeleine, now remarried but still in love with her first husband, who visits.
It would all be one big mopefest if it weren't for the beautifully incongruous presence of Paul Schneider, who plays Vera's main love interest. In many ways reprising his sincere screwup in David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, Schneider is a bumbling American archetype set loose in a stylish French film, and he pretty much breaks everything he touches. He is an unbridled mess of tics and emotional stutters, with the heart of a lamb and the soul of an asshole.
But the real heart of this overstuffed movie lies with director Milos Forman, who plays the aged Jaromil. The once-formidable Forman is here doddering and rheumy, a stroke-victim Casanova who somehow seems smudged on each frame. He is, in fact, precisely what the movie is: diffuse, confused and somehow utterly convinced of his own charms.
Critic's Grade: C-
SEE IT: Beloved opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.