Beloved was the closing film of this year’s Cannes, and one that I really liked, being taken with many of the performances and smitten by the movie’s sheer boldness. Plus it can boast the presence of Catherine Deneuve, which is always an asset, never a flaw, for any motion picture. Towards the end of Cannes, I got the chance to speak to the director of Beloved, Christophe Honoré. Here’s what was said.
A musical spanning over 50 years, kicking off in 1964 Paris, Beloved is the story of a mother and daughter, Madeline and Véra (played respectively by Ludivine Sagnier/Catherine Deneueve and the real-life daughter of the latter, Chiara Mastroianni), and their amorous entanglements. Of the men they become entangled with, genius Czech director Milos Forman twinkles in a rare acting role as the elder manifestation of Madeline’s love and Vera’s father, Jaromil (a little disappointingly, Admiral Amadeus Cuckoo’s Nest neglects to get his karaoke pipes moist), and long-term Honoré collaborator Louis Garrel shows up as Clemént, a teacher and author who plays disgruntled second fiddle to Vera’s infatuation with a gay American, Henderson (Paul Schneider).
(If you’re interested in reading a bit more about Beloved, then check out my review here. Please do. It would make me a happy little chappy, at least for a minute or two.)
Garrel is not merely an ever-present in Honoré’s movies; he also put in an unscheduled bonus appearance at the roundtable interview with the director which I attended on the final Saturday of the festival, on a rooftop terrace which provided stellar views of the Cannes beach-front. Their honed double-act resulted in a gigglesome chat, with Honoré increasingly assuming the role of court jester as the session wound on, often seeming to aim his answers with the intention of extracting yuks from Garrel. For his part, the actor maintained a largely stoic demeanour, albeit one punctuated with occasionally gnomic comments, such as when he suddenly declared Beloved to be the spiritual successor to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
The session grew increasingly boisterous as Honoré warmed up, with him having felt confident enough to largely dispense with the services of his assigned translator after the first couple of questions, and deliver his answers in English. But it was in French that we began, with the first question posed to the director pertaining to the claim in the Beloved press book that the film had not originally been intended as a musical.
Questioner: Is it true that this was really a musical by chance?
Christophe Honoré: It came out like this when I was writing the script. Originally I was writing a novel, and I didn't know how to get to the end of it until I got in touch with Alex Beaupain, who's written the music, and said “I'm going to give you a page of dialogue. Please see if you can write a song about it.” And that's how we get the idea of making it a musical comedy.
Q: The film feels almost like a follow-up to Love Songs [Honoré’s 2007 Palme d’Or-nominated musical, which also starred Garrel, Sagnier and Mastroianni], and has a lot of similarities in the way that it is set up and the way you handle the music. What were the similarities you saw when making the films, and what were the different routes you chose?
CH: I think the two movies share the idea of the genre, which is the musical comedy. But for me, they are deeply different. In the case of Love Songs, it was a portrait of young people in Paris in a specific period, while here we have Véra and Madeline who somehow each represents a different time, and the painting is much more detailed, vis-à-vis the development of the feelings of love.
And also in Love Songs, the character played by Louis embodied the fact that he felt two very different feelings at the same time – loss, and at the same time the discovery of new love. Here, I think, the relationship is much more focused on time and the feeling of love. [suddenly switches to English] But maybe we [meaning Louis and him] can consider the difference between these two movies. Mmm, my English is so good! [to Louis] Yes, you can answer now.
Louis Garrel: [in French] For me, the main difference is the time lapse. Because in Love Songs, the whole story was developed in four months, while here time spans over 45 years. And then I'm specifically interested in Beloved as a viewer because I'm always very interested in cinema whenever there is a male filmmaker who’s able to trust an actress to develop all his feelings and all his thoughts on the script.
Q: Would you say you were interested in more complex forms of love than in Love Songs?
CH: [also reverting to French] Yes, I think this is a film that is much more focused on love. I really forced myself to try and focus only on the sentimental love-life of the characters, because that's what I was interested in. I didn't want to deal with other issues, [just] deeper insight of love the way I feel it and understand it. Just to go back to what Louis was saying, when a filmmaker decides to tackle just a love story and nothing else – and I'm thinking about Journey to Italy by Roberto Rossellini – it's interesting in seeing how the feeling of love bonds a filmmaker and an actress.
Q: How would you rate Milos Forman's singing talents?
CH: [in English] Milos said to me exactly the same thing: “Why don't I sing?” He was very annoyed. But when I wrote the script I had in my mind Louis, Catherine, Ludivine and Chiara. Alex Beaupain and me knew for which actor each song will be. I couldn't have dreamt when I wrote the script that Milos [will] come in my movie. For me, he is so untouchable... [Louis cracks up laughing] I try!
Translator: [referring to Christophe’s English] It's very good!
CH: I was really surprised when he accepted. He said to me “I accept because I think it's the last possibility I have to be the husband of Catherine Deneuve.” And he really, really likes French food. When he arrived in Paris, we went to a restaurant with Chiara and it was incredible for me. Because I am fat, I really like eating, but he eats for three people! So I imagine he joined the movie for the food and Catherine Denueve.
Q: Louis, he was just talking about relationships with actresses, and you've made a couple of films together now – has your relationship changed?
LG: [gamely goes for the English] Not so much. I think we have a kind of brotherly relationship and this kind of relationship doesn't really change.
Q: He only has to say half-a-word and you know what he means?
LG: He's saying nothing right now.
CH: It's really interesting that you say that because on-set we don't reproach each other, but the most difficult actor for me to communicate with is always with Louis. We've made six movies and our relationship is very, very strange. You say “half-a-word” now. No! With Louis, it's a book! [laughter] Never just a word!
This movie was very difficult for Louis, because I hid the space where I wanted him to go. I wanted a character with no seductions, and I really want for spectators at the end of the movie to feel “Oh, this character is the real lover of this film.” But it's always hidden. Louis was very not at ease on the set because he thinks I didn’t like his character. I imagine if I’d never made movies with Louis before, I’d never ask him to do this job in this way. [pleased as punch with how this is going] Yes, I am English fluent!
Q: It's interesting that you picked Catherine Deneuve and Ludivine Sagnier to be the same person. Do you see some sort of evolution in Ludivine Sagnier's career that will take her to that level?
CH: Ludivine is very strange as an actress because she is a chameleon [looks at translator for confirmation he has chosen his word correctly. She signals he has, which prompts him to break into a brief burst of Culture Club's Karma Chameleon]. Me, I don't really like this kind of actress. I don't like actors who want to build a character. It's bullshit. And she's very strange, because when you see Ludivine in my movies and other movies, she's not the same person.
But what is very interesting with her is that she doesn't build these things. It's very natural, and it's very easy to work with her. You ask her to do something and at the first take it's so good, so charming. The DP is “Oh, I love her.” I really like my actors. It's completely silly to say this with him [Louis] here, but...
LG: No, it's all right.
CH: ...but I have done some movies now and I really think the only motivation to do another movie is “Oh, I want to work with actors.” When I was a journalist on Cahiers du cinéma, never in my critiques did I talk about actors. For me, the director is the only one. I discover actors [by] making movies. It's enough for me to have actors and to try and make things with them. I imagine that's why I now do more and more love stories, because actors and love stories – it’s the best.
Q: But you see a connection between Sagnier and Deneuve?
CH: Well, Ludivine rhymes with Catherine in French, of course.
Q: Can you describe the way that the two women, Véra and Madeline, relate to love? Because it's very clear the men are in love with them, so there's love coming from the other side, but what about their relation to love?
CH: [in French] I think I should speak French because you always have to speak French when you speak about love. It's true, the film is told from the point of view of Chiara Mastroianni's character, which is my point of view, and she has the illusion that the golden age of love and loving relationships belonged to the generation of her mother. I think all generations tend to think it was their parents who had an easier life in dealing with important feelings.
Chiara tries to have this kind of light-hearted character that she believes her mother has, and then the movie reveals to us that, in fact, the character of Catherine Deneuve is not light at all and she has some sort of discipline in order to be a certain way. In the end, she's very melancholy towards her past and what she could not have.
LG: If we were able to build a kind of invisible in cinema, I would see a line linking Beloved to Gladiator.
CH: [baffled] But why?
LG: Because Gladiator, and Ridley Scott movies in general, are about men who are conquerors, while in Christophe's movies we see men [who] have to deal with women who ask all the time to be loved.
CH: It's a cruel tale of love in a way.
Q: I must ask you about your other film coming up, Let My People Go!, which is set in Finland. Why Finland?
CH: [in English] I was just a co-writer. It's a young director [Mikael Buch]. It's about a young Jewish gay man in France who has problems with his parents and his sexuality, and when we wrote the script, for me, it was evident that a young Jewish homosexual who wants to escape his parents – the better way is to be in love with the Finnish. The beginning is in Finland, something very Walt Disney – for us French, Finland is Walt Disney World. I don’t know why, but you know, with little Bambi [laughter] – and of course when he comes back to Paris, it is a nightmare.
But it’s a really funny movie. It’s a first movie, but I’m really happy to participate. I’m not an old uncle of French cinema, but for me it’s important to try and have a relationship with young directors. People say I make too many movies, so when I can write for other directors I am happy. Writing novels is so difficult, but I find writing scripts is the most fun thing in the world.
A triple-bill of Beloved-related viewing suggestions for you here on Indie (all UK only I'm afraid): Paul Schneider puts in an appearance in George Washington, the debut feature from Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green, while Catherine Deneuve shows up in Je Veux Voir. And also lurking in our free movie arsenal is The Fireman's Ball, the Oscar-nominated satire from Milos Forman.