Although flecked with modern attitudes and mannerisms, “The Children of the Century” is a generally old-fashioned costumer that runs out of gas even faster than does the tempestuous love affair between writer George Sand and poet Alfred de Musset that it so devotedly recounts. Diane Kurys’ first foray into bio-historical territory earnestly commits itself to delineating the contours and depths of the relationship between two of the 19th century’s most headstrong romanticists, but employs only the most conventional narrative means of doing so. Reputations of Kurys and, particularly, star Juliette Binoche should spark some foreign sales, but, like most recent big-budget French period pieces, this one doesn’t look to travel far with U.S. or other offshore audiences. Pic opened Sept. 22 in France after world preeming at the Toronto Film Festival.
Iconoclastic, proto-feminist writer Sand has usually been depicted onscreen in the context of her decade-long romance with Chopin, but Kurys concentrates upon her earlier two-year liaison with de Musset, whose fictionalized version of their affair was entitled “Confessions of a Child of the Century.” Story is an inherently dramatic one, in that it takes places in the upper realms of French society in the early 1830s against a backdrop of great artistic activity (Hugo, Delacroix, Berlioz, Balzac, Merimee, et al.) and social upheaval.
The personal and political are thrust together at the outset, as the Baroness Dudevant (Binoche) arrives in Paris with her two children on the night of bloody student rioting. Having just left her husband and stifling life in the country, she has decided to reinvent herself as a writer, and her initial bold gestes are duly catalogued: her assumption of a masculine name, dressing in tailored men’s clothing, smoking cigars and outraging le tout Paris with salon readings from her anti-matrimonial texts, which deal with such taboo subjects as women’s frigidity and lack of sexual fulfillment.
But what shocks the taste-makers attracts de Musset (Benoit Magimel), a dissolute rich boy given to boozing and carousing in brothels, as well as to occasional literary fireworks.
In between her coping with a busy family life and his mourning his father’s sudden death, Sand and de Musset gradually develop a passionate friendship, with the poet helping the burgeoning literary star revise a troublesome play. But when de Musset, who, at 23, is six years younger, and Sand finally embark upon their torrid affair, his family disapproves of the match so emphatically that the young man is driven to storm out of the house, one valuable painting in hand.
To escape the pressure exerted by his mother and the public, the couple take a winter trip to Venice, which proves far more taxing than romantic. Escaping immediately upon their arrival into a bordello, de Musset shortly thereafter insists upon separate rooms and plays the role of an odious, no-account cad to the hilt, spiraling downward into drink-and-opium-fed dissipation while Sand scribbles the nights away in her bed. “Can’t you see I need to live badly to write well?” the young man lamely argues during one of their many petulant screaming matches.
Sand ultimately takes solace in the arms of a handsome Venetian doctor, Pagello (Stefano Dionisi), who nurses her and, subsequently, de Musset back to health. From there, things go from dire to merely drear.
On balance, the misery in Sand and de Musset’s relationship far outweighs the merriment, a fact reflected in the generally dour mood and even in the dark, lusterless images.
Equating depth of feeling with mad tempestuousness, far too many scenes are devoted to heated arguments, rants and recriminations.
On the plus side, script by novelist-journalist Francois Olivier Rousseau, actor-scenarist Murray Head and Kurys judiciously mines the letters of the two protagonists for telling glimpses into their passions and self-reflections.
On the down side, however, it fails to illuminate the inner life of Sand — in particular, to reveal what it took to undertake her transformation and to suggest how she could tolerate the extraordinary abuse she endured at the hands of de Musset.
Dramatic irrelevancies, such as de Musset rushing to the relief of Jews being herded off by Austrian authorities in Venice, feel like contempo point-making.
Kurys covers all the emotional turmoil in disappointingly conventional fashion; pic boasts period verisimilitude and benefits from evocative locations, but visual style is relatively plain and straight-ahead. Fashion designer Christian Lacroix, who has costumed many opera and theater productions, makes his screen debut here with a succession of splashy and colorful outfits that look convincingly modern in context.
Although she commands attention as always, Binoche remains rather distant emotionally and doesn’t have, or communicate, the sense of fun as Sand that Judy Davis did in the 1991 romp “Impromptu.” In his impetuousness and volatility, rising young thesp Magimel reminds of a French Sean Penn, strongly putting across de Musset’s demons and charisma.