Pic via George Biard

“I am my parents’ sex life, nothing else.”

If you were Catherine Deneuve’s petulant love child, you might go around saying such things too – but only in the movies, of course. It’s easy to forget that Chiara Mastroianni, cast as Vera in Christophe Honoré ’s Beloved , is referring not to Deneuve (her real life mom) but to Madeleine, her fictional parent ( played by Deneuve.)

Beloved (Les bien-aimé s) opens Friday, August 17 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. It’s also available on-demand from IFC Films’ VOD channel.

You’ll want to see it. Or, at least, Freud would want to.


In the animated feature Persepolis, Chiara played Catherine’s daughter in voiceover. Beloved is the first movie in which the two are portrayed as mother-daughter in person. (If you haven’t seen Persepolis, you’ll want to rent it after watching Beloved.)

That Chiara’s father happens to be the late Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita; Divorce, Italian Style) will explain why that epitaphic “my parents’ sex life” echoes in your head days after seeing Beloved. The actress is a child of two icons who fell in love in the 1970s, staying friends after a four-year romance. The character she plays is a middle-class child of divorce whose parents can’t stop seducing each other, long after Mom has remarried. As your therapist might say, “it’s a lot.”

Milos Forman (the Oscar-winning director of The People vs. Larry Flynt ), plays Vera’s (Chiara’s) seductive dad. He almost looks like Mastroianni, but let’s not drive ourselves crazy here! Without hitting you over the head (it’s more like an affectionate nudge), Beloved goes out of its way to honor a few significant icons of 20th century cinema. So, yes, this is a movie for film nerds – but not just for them.

It’s a film for fashionistas, too. Those Roger Vivier pilgrim flats, worn by Deneuve in Belle de Jour – popularized by that 1967 movie’s success – are a recurring theme in Beloved. Her shoes were just one component of a YSL – Vivier collaboration. Much like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Deneuve created an unforgettable look.

And whether you love or hate Pretty Woman, Beloved speaks to your concerns. The new film asks what happens next when a part-time streetwalker (Madeleine in 1964, played by Ludivine Sagnier) picks up a young doctor on the streets of Paris and they fall in love. Due to its knowing gaze, progressive assumptions, and subtitles, I am really, really tempted to call this movie “Pretty Woman for Hipsters.” Risky, but I’ll put it out there. Let the blogosphere decide!

The transition from Sagnier to Deneuve, each playing Madeleine in different eras, is irresistible. This, after all, is what we really want to find out. Can Sagnier pull that off? She’s not just playing Madeleine circa 1964: she’s (in some inescapable sense) playing Deneuve! This is terrifying enough for some Deneuve fans to contemplate; I can only imagine how Sagnier felt. The verdict? Yes she can. Even though she looks nothing like Deneuve did in 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and why would she?), Sagnier and Deneuve manage the transition seamlessly.

And there are songs! Have a weakness for musicals? Good, because Vera’s childhood is full of upheavals. Soviet tanks rolling through Prague in 1968. Parents catching one another in flagrante in the 70’s. The songs are pretty enough to offset (and make you appreciate) how much anxiety is in the air.

As an adult, Vera tries to become more than her parents’ sex life. Then she gets involved with an American drummer (Paul Schneider) who disrupts her rocky yet viable love affair with a Paris admirer (the eminently appealing Louis Garrel.) This triangle isn’t the strongest point in the story. Deneuve’s character – who’s got something better going on – keeps the film focused.

“Beware the cool mom”, Beloved seems to say.

She’s a confusing parent in any era, not always great at raising happy offspring, even when she’s quite lovable in her own right. Whether Madeleine is shopping, grieving, or sneaking into a hotel, Deneuve is the reason we’re here – something she knows and wears lightly.

And I love that she’s still here. Having appeared in more than 100 films, Deneuve’s a trouper who never allowed her astonishing beauty to make her lazy. Her 60’s musicals – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; The Young Girls of Rochefort – show off her dewy perfection. Two decades later, as the glam vampire Miriam Blaylock, she seduces Susan Sarandon in The Hunger while hiding her husband (David Bowie ) in a coffin: so 80’s!

More recently, in Potiche, clad in a red track suit, Deneuve portrayed a trophy wife of a certain age, married to a pompous factory owner. She enjoyed her role as Carole, the memorable nutjob in Roman Polanski’s terrifying Repulsion. Then again, 2004 brought a biopic about Princess Marie Bonaparte, who financed Sigmund Freud’s escape from the Nazis and did some pioneering (if strange-sounding) research into the nature of female orgasm. And she found time to work with Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) and Burt Reynolds (who she said had “a great sense of humour, for an American.”)

Men she’s collected so far include ex-husband Roger Vadim, photographer David Bailey and …. surprisingly, Clint Eastwood, of all people. In 1971, when abortion was still illegal, Deneuve famously signed The Manifesto of the 343, boldly declaring “I have had an abortion,” which exposed her to prosecution. Fifteen years later, she was the national symbol of France, chosen as the model for Marianne. Despite her support for Segolene Royal in 2007 – “it was not really for her as a person, it was for her as a woman” – you can’t predict how Deneuve will respond to a question. She prefers Mademoiselle – Madame being as close as it gets to Ms in France – and has never disowned her Cinderella gig, as narrator of the fairytale for a Disney album. In a 2010 interview – “J’adore!” – she made it pretty clear that she never will.

Why should you love Catherine Deneuve? Why should you see Beloved? Simply because she truly knows how to live.