A massive undertaking and an accomplished piece of filmmaking in a solid tradition of intelligent, meticulous literary adaptations, “Les destinees sentimentales” represents a surprisingly conventional departure for Olivier Assayas. Lacking the edge and intensity of the director’s contemporary outings, this three-hour period drama covering almost four decades is never uninteresting but remains curiously subdued for a film about love. That restraint and the daunting running time threaten to compromise its profile on arthouse circuits.
Source novel by Jacques Chardonne is a work of Proustian dimensions, originally published in three volumes and spanning the start of the century to the late 1930s. Adapting the opus, Assayas and co-writer Jacques Fieschi have attempted to cover too much ground, diluting the drama rather than focusing on a limited section and drawing it out. That said, the film is not without considerable rewards for patient audiences.
The scripters decline to disguise the literary origins, instead emphasizing them by serializing the action into three extended chapters. First takes place in Barbazac, a fictitious town in the Cognac region, where Protestant minister Jean Barnery (Charles Berling) has accepted the end of his marriage after gossip about the infidelity of his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), spreads through the small community, causing him to send her and their daughter away.
When 20-year-old Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart) comes to the village to stay following the death of her father, a veiled attraction is immediately evident between her and Jean, starting with their first meeting at a ball. After news of Nathalie’s suffering reaches Jean, he organizes her return.
Nathalie comes back transformed, however, made frosty and harsh by her brief expulsion, and the marriage soon dissolves permanently. Jean sets Nathalie and their daughter up in a Paris apartment and resigns as minister.
Second section picks up in Paris, where Pauline visits Jean, who has fallen on hard times and lies bedridden with tuberculosis in an austere hotel room. Jean is now divorced and unhindered; upon his recovery, they marry and settle in Switzerland. But pressure from Jean’s clan summons him back to Limoges to manage the troubled family porcelain business.
Final chapter starts with the Great War, with Jean sent to the front while Pauline works as a nurse. Back in peacetime, industrial disputes shake up the economic climate as Jean pushes to increase production at the porcelain factory while freezing wages and lowering shareholders’ dividends, adding to his unpopularity and the general unrest.
His taste and perfectionism lead to the firm’s development of a fine ivory porcelain that has no equal. But Jean’s decline into old age and illness is mirrored by a precipitous drop in the demand for luxury goods.
The film’s fast-forward approach to much of the narrative is almost dizzying at times: War starts and ends just a scene or two later; Jean’s daughter is one minute a rebellious fixture on the Montparnasse nightclub scene and is taking holy orders the next. The incidentals of the drama are absorbing enough, and the porcelain production and factory scenes in particular provide some fascinating detail, but the prime focus here is the love between Jean and Pauline, which weathers upheavals, war, industrial strife and family pressure.
Both Beart and Berling give admirably measured performances, convincingly weathering the subtle modulations of a union that remains solid over many years. But the film is such a refined enterprise that it seems never to spark fully to life. Only in Huppert’s scenes does it bristle with some much-needed electricity.
Nathalie is by far the story’s most interesting character, with the redoubtable actress expertly conveying the tightly capped fierceness of a woman who has embraced her role as an outcast and lives only for her pain and suffering.
Visual approach is radically different from that of Assayas’ other work, such as “Cold Water,” “Irma Vep” and “Late August, Early September.”
The jumpy, restless camerawork of those films is absent, aside from some relatively controlled hand-held sequences at the opening-act ball, which represents the director’s nod to “The Leopard” and other Visconti costume dramas he clearly admires. Elsewhere, d.p. Eric Gautier’s style is graceful and fluid, taking full advantage of the widescreen canvas to capture the handsome locations and period settings crisply, if rather unimaginatively.