Christophe Honoré’s latest, Les Bien-Aimès, sees the French director return to his classic vision, after a move into more experimental territory with 2010’s Homme au Bain. While fans of Les Chansons d’Amour and Dans Paris may have been disappointed, or at the least confused with that effort, this musical, decade-spanning study of love and sex across two very different generations feels much more familiar.
Honoré regular Chiara Mastroianni and real life mere Catherine Deneuve star as mother and daughter in the confusing, commitment-phobic, post-AIDS world of the 90s, with Ludivine Sagnier as the young Deneuve of the free-spirited 60s. Beginning with a gloriously retro dive into mother Madeleine’s chic Paris world, it transpires that she ‘accidentally’ slipped into prostitution as a sideline to prevent her from stealing Dior handbags and life’s other little luxuries. Grown-up daughter Vera is still fixated on the freedoms her mother’s generation enjoyed, but as the film moves on its scope widens, and we see glimpses of several other stories. Vera becomes stuck between gay American drummer Henderson (Paul Schneider) and colleague and ex-lover Clement (Louis Garrel), who is hopelessly in love with her but unable to express it. The generous running time (134 minutes) allows these developments space to unfold, and the seamless sliding forward through time means the shifts in focus have a natural rhythm. While centring on a mother/daughter relationship, the film is really an ensemble piece about generational attitudes to love.
Even for those familiar with Honoré’s other films – and his characters’ tendency to sing-talk when they can’t properly express their feelings – the introduction of Alex Beaupain’s songs is an unexpected little joy. Effortlessly referencing the French film traditions which obviously influence him, this feels like Honoré’s most ambitious, mature work to date. While the plot is arguably more original than Chansons, the bright colour palette and locations recall Demy and Les parapluies de Cherbourg as much as that film did. Honoré wears his influences on his sleeve, without ever becoming a slave to them. Many of his usual tropes pop up at different points, from characters looking directly at the camera, the menage a trois, sudden deaths, and the city as another character in the film. The opening is undeniably fluffy, but the film gradually moves to explore more complex, more melancholy themes, showcasing the director’s uncanny ability to make spontaneous, ostensibly bizarre moments utterly real and believable.
A genuinely engrossing, honest, ambitious film, this is far from a mere rehashing of Chansons or a glib nostalgia-fest. Honoré has crafted a many-layered piece which explores complex ideas about life, with carefully developed, beautifully acted characters. The length, while initially daunting, proves completely warranted, allowing each strand and idea to be fully realised. Sadly, Honoré’s last two films haven’t had UK cinema releases, but presumably the presence of Catherine Deneuve here has helped secure its distribution. If you have the chance to see perhaps Honoré’s most developed work thus far, take it!