Les Destinées is an unexpected film from writer-director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep; Late August, Early September), being an ambitious family saga and period piece that spans 1900–30.
It has a distinctly different tone from his earlier depictions of mod anxiety and creative disorder. The film’s leisurely pace — or more precisely, the way the narrative jumps from one languid sequence to the next — combined with its three-hour length make it something of a chore to watch. It doesn’t help that the central character alternates between being unlikable and inscrutable so that when his spiritual redemption finally arrives, one is hard-pressed to care. This story of an era dying, of country comforts yielding to industrial disruptions, is something that anybody can relate to (this loss-of-innocence tale parallels everyone’s personal history). But it’s still difficult to enter fully into the bittersweet mood of another nation’s nostalgia if too many of the details have elusive connotations.
The central character is Jean Barnery (Charles Berling) whose tragic fate is to be alienated from the ruling order as a young man and then, when it’s much too late, to become its advocate. Jean has rejected his wealthy family’s porcelain business to become a Protestant minister. As the film opens, he’s leaving his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), since he suspects her of, if not adultery then at least misplaced affection. He takes up a ministry in rural Barbazac and becomes smitten with the local cognac baron’s niece, Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart). But before that romance can blossom, guilt has forced him to return to Nathalie for a short reunion that ends in divorce and his final rejection of his religious calling. Now free, he marries Pauline and the two retreat to Switzerland, ostensibly to soothe Jean’s tuberculosis, but also to get away from their relatives and the demanding society of cognac and porcelain.
That’s the first third of a film that, like the Jacques Chardonne novel it’s based on, is divided into three nearly equal parts. The film’s second part is the most taxing since, once ensconced in their Swiss retreat, there’s little for them to do except slowly realize, after an initial period of marital bliss, the extent of the incompatibility of Pauline’s romantic naiveté and Jean’s indecisive, disconnected-from-the-world temperament. But the marriage’s dissolution is interrupted by World War I, from which Jean returns a changed man. With any remnants of the idealism which originally led him to the pulpit having been burned away by his war experience, he assumes his place as head of the family’s porcelain business, at first reluctantly and then with increasing zeal. Finally (and we’re well into part three by now) Jean has found a purpose in life and, in the process, he evolves from a moody twerp into something more like a first-class asshole.
While the story moves along at a torturous crawl, the film itself is dancingly light, with Assayas using a fluid handheld camera, jump cuts and montages, always at the service of the narrative. So unobtrusively stylish is his approach that one may later recall the film as being plodding, the camera flourishes forgotten and Jean’s long descent and final resurrection too well-remembered.
But there’s much here to admire. The best part of the film, aside from its look (scenery buffs take note) and Assayas’ quietly busy direction, is its wealth of period detail. There’s the long dance sequence at the beginning, reminiscent of a similar episode in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963 — itself being a precursor to the famous Godfather wedding), with society’s courting rituals codified into the rules of eye contact before and during a waltz; the making of the porcelain; the sampling of the cognac; the fusty formality of every casual encounter.
It’s a world re-created very well and some viewers may be content to just sink into its inviting depths. But the overall impression is one of the distillation of a historical epoch into a single man’s droning life story, the undercurrents of upheaval muted by his implacable dullness. It’s tragedy with a core of dead air, well-acted and well-appointed, but, despite the occasional surge of feeling, emotionally distant.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].