Les Destinées sentimentales
review by Paula Nechak, 2 August 2002

The beauty of the three-hour epic, Les Destinées, is that it is directed by Olivier Assayas, the Frenchman who so exquisitely comments upon contemporary society through the examination of its relationships. The 1998 film Late August, Early September is one of my favorite Assayas efforts, languishing on dramatic events born out of everyday occurrences among a group of thirty-something Parisians who are linked by their friendship with a generation-older writer (Francois Cluzet). Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) and Anne (Virginie Ledoyen) weave through Adrien's chaotic life, searching for happiness and attempting to discern their place in the world's scheme. Only Adrien's inevitable death -- and the discovery that he has left behind an adolescent girlfriend named Vera (Mia Hansen-Love) -- allows them to find a fragment of footing on the slippery slope of circumstance. Late August, Early September is a beautifully crafted film, teeming with small moments and observations. Those cinematic intimacies are Assayas' trademark as well in other films like Irma Vep and Cold Water and the director reaps a harvestful of human poignancies and riches in that which is not easily discerned in the haze and haste of urban bustle, impersonality and brusqueness.

It made sense then that Assayas might do wonders with Les Destinées sentimentales, a dense turn-of-the-century tome by Jacques Chardonne that chronicles the interwoven doings between two prominent French families. The film, which played at Cannes in 2000, is Assayas' first period piece and, as expected, pays lavish attention to detail and the delicate nuance of time and place. The Barnery lineage includes Jean (Charles Berling) a remote minister married to the wayward Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert). The film begins with a door closing and another opening as Jean dismisses his wife and young daughter to another town because he suspects she has been unfaithful. His prim and inaccessible mind wishes to avoid a scandal within his parish so, despite his concern for his child, he allows her to be taken and his already dour personality absorbs the loss like a sponge. He retreats further inside himself, believing he has a harbor in his faith. And though he is the family's saviour, he refuses to listen to their urgings to leave the ministry and take over operation of the family porcelain factory.

The Pommerels are another story. They're earthy and rebellious -- especially the women. While the men tend to the manufacture of family label cognac, twenty-year-old Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart) returns from Paris where she has been educated in a "modern" way. But upon meeting upright, uptight Jean something melts inside of her. She understands that this staid, sensible man is her destiny and no obstacle (and there are many in the forty year expanse that the film frames) -- not divorce, poverty or war -- can keep them interminably apart.

There is so much visually right and new and thrilling in Les Destinées that it's a damned shame Assayas' usually reliable heart, as far as human instinct and behavior is concerned, fails him. For sure, his eye is on target: a ballroom dance sequence is reinvented from the morass of the usual wide angle it's been cursed with and emerges as intense and spellbinding as the opening tracking shot in Goodfellas. So it may be that the scope of a massive source text has blinded him, or he's gotten hung up in the minutae of making a movie that demands so much exhaustive research and restoration that he neglected the key components that have made his films great -- narrative cohesiveness, passion and access into the minds and motivations of his characters.

It's a misstep for Assayas, no matter how courageous, and I can only hope he'll have shaken off the desire to mine the mysteries of the past. While I admire innovation and attempting something new, Assayas belongs to the here and now. If he's gotten it out of his system and acknowledges that he tried a film that has been done many times in spirit -- Sunshine, Jerusalem, The Age of Innocence -- then perhaps he'll return to his generation -- one which desperately needs his brilliant vision.

Directed by:
Olivier Assayas

Charles Berling
Isabelle Huppert
 Emmanuelle Béart

Written by:
Olivier Assayas 
Jacques Freschi

NR - Not Rated.
This film has 
not been rated






www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.