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DESTINEES SENTIMENTALES, LES (director/writer: Olivier Assayas; screenwriters: based on the novel “Les Destinees Sentimentales” by Jacques Chardonne/Jacques Fieschi; cinematographer: Eric Gautier; editor: Luc Barnier; music: Nicolas Bomsal; cast: Emmanuelle Béart (Pauline Pommerel), Charles Berling (Jean Barnery), Isabelle Huppert (Nathalie Barnery), Olivier Perrier (Philippe Pommerel), Dominique Reymond (Julie Desca), André Marcon (Paul Desca), Alexandra London (Louise Desca), Mathieu Genet (Max Barnery), Jean-Baptiste Malartre (Frédéric Barnery), Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (Arthur Pommerel), Rémi Martin (Dahlias), Mia Hansen-Love (Aline Barnery), Jean-Pierre Gos (Fayet, the solicitor), Jérôme Huguet (René Fayet); Runtime: 180; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bruno Pésery; Wellspring Media; 2000-France/Swiss-in French)
“The filmmaker’s heart is in the right place…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An overblown soap opera melodrama and romantic tale centering around a wealthy Protestant family in France at the turn of the last century that covers a period of over 30 years in what seems like the actual over 30 years. It is immaculately done in a flawless style and the ensemble cast is gamely in character and it’s beautifully photographed with one lush scenic landscape after another dissolving into other magnificently framed shots, and it is costumed to capture the period’s rich flavor. It also truly has a few moments of quiet dignity that sparkle like a vintage wine, but it’s oh so long and tedious and uninvolving and loaded down with far too many characters to care about. I’m not sure of what registered by the time all the tragic scenes were played out and the hero on his deathbed uttered that despite his failings “no life is wasted.” The hero also wails about his life regrets and that there’s nothing else as important as love. The messages sounded worn by the time they were delivered. The hero ultimately confides to his sensual wife before his departure from this world “I’m all worn out,” which is how I’m afraid this refined but distended family saga plays out to many of the viewers.

Director-writer Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep“/”Late August, Early September“) has created from the classic novel of Jacques Chardonne an arty period film that opens with a funeral and ends on a deathbed watch, and manages to say hardly anything refreshingly new in-between despite its nearly 3-hour length. This project might also be viewed as a peek into Assayas’ own French Protestant background.

Olivier Assayas’s “Les Destinées” chronicles the travails of a Protestant minister turned factory owner, Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), who in the film’s opening scene is doubting the devotion of his wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), whom the gossips have linked to a community member known as a notorious ladies man — Dahlias (Remi Martin). Jean asks her to leave their home in the small town of Barbazac, where there are 200 Protestants amid 5,000 Catholics; it’s in a rural area in the central region of France known as Charente. She reacts by taking their infant daughter Aline with her to live in biblical exile in nearby Limoges. The Protestant community is overly concerned about appearances and respect, feeling they must always appear above reproach to the Catholic majority and not offer them even a hint of scandal. Years later Jean asks her to return in an admission of his guilt that he did the wrong thing and then almost immediately upon her return asks for a divorce even though she has done nothing wrong. As far as I’m concerned, I found the characters unappealing and began losing interest at this point and didn’t get back into the story until the final hour.

Jean goes through a moral dilemma which he at first discusses with his stuffy confidante and best friend, the old-fashioned wine grower, Philippe Pommerel (Olivier Perrier), and later with his philosophical and wiser sister Julie (Dominique Reymond). Julie knows the inner nature of her brother better than his friend and predicts that he’ll pay dearly for the way he treated his moral wife but will make amends and become a wiser man. Jean decides on his own that he erred in his treatment of his obedient but complicated wife and gives her his fortune from his family’s porcelain factory, leaves his calling, and marries Philippe’s pretty young niece Pauline Pommerel (Emmanuelle Beart). We first see Pauline in the film’s most marvelously drawn out scene, where she’s the belle of the social ball and gracefully catches all eyes as she waltzes with numerous partners. But Pauline’s heart goes out to the one she doesn’t dance with — the minister. After Jean’s divorce and his ex-wife’s exit to Paris with their daughter, Jean lives with the beautiful Pauline happily in Switzerland in a mountain chalet and they have a son in 1905 named Max. Jean’s dilemma comes when his uncle Robert dies several years later. Robert ran the failing family business in Limoges, a porcelain factory that caters to rich connoisseurs around the world, and Jean is now asked by the other family members to step in and run the business that they all live off but can’t manage. This decision upsets Pauline, but she returns and watches her once social conscience orientated husband turn into a cold, calculating businessman and do what he has to do to make it highly profitable while maintaining a quality product. They survive his service in WW1 and other heartaches, and Jean returns home after the war with plans to build a new factory and not raise wages immediately so he can gain more capital. But during the Great Depression Jean’s forced to lay off workers incurring the wrath of the community and to cut back most of his overseas outlets in order to survive. The film leaves off with him suffering from a longtime tuberculosis ailment and a recent factory accident to his leg, and is on his deathbed recalling how the years quickly went by and wondering why so many things have gone wrong. His adult son Max is removed from the business scene and the town, and is promised a fresh start in life; while his neglected daughter Aline alters her troubled life by turning away from worldly things and surprisingly becomes a deaconess to serve the world’s poor at the mercy of the church.

The problem with this epic is in the scope it tries to cover and all it doesn’t cover. It was certainly an earnest endeavor and was more intimate in its characterizations of its main characters than most such grand-scale films, but so much of the ex-pastor’s struggle to do the right thing is inward which makes for dubious dramatizations. But, on the positive side, it is also something that gave the film an undetermined weight that just sat there and made the film come to life after it was seemingly dead. The filmmaker’s heart is in the right place, whether it’s in showing the artisan who invests his time and money in getting just the right hue for his porcelain or in the pastor not preaching what he no longer believes or in the film’s grasp that love must be imagined first, as all these attitudes reflect the French cinephile’s preference of the auteur theory over Hollywood’s cookie-cutter assembly line method of producing films. And, perhaps that’s what this sweeping film ultimately is telling its viewers–as the film leaves you in its melancholy and richly drawn texture without overtly saying much about what it was really driving at except for successfully setting such a sentimental feeling about life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”