“He not busy being born is busy dying.” Bob Dylan’s oft-quoted 1965 lyric could well serve as a plot summary for Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s first French-language feature, “Éternité,” which trains a painterly eye (and a fetish for immaculate production design) on three generations of an enormous aristocratic family that stays busy doing little else. Featuring an embarrassment of great actresses (Audrey Tautou, Mélanie Laurent, Bérénice Bejo, Irène Jacob) near-silently emoting for the camera as their characters process constant birth and death for the better part of two hours, “Éternité” is a meditative, gorgeous-looking film imbued with such gentle sensitivity that it’s difficult to dislike. Yet the experience of watching it is much like sitting in an opulent garden café on a glorious spring morning, waiting for a meal that never arrives.
Set to the dulcet tones of birdsong and classical piano (Bach and Debussy especially), the overwhelming majority of “Éternité’s” dialogue is delivered via an omniscient voiceover — half an hour has elapsed before anyone has a conversation of more than two sentences, and it’s longer still before anyone makes any sudden movements or loud noises. And while that robs the story of much urgency or conflict, it’s hard to imagine it would be possible to keep track of the central family’s exponentially-expanding numbers without it.
Starting somewhere in France in the 19th century — at least judging by the costumes and decor, as no other geographic or chronological signifiers are to be found — the film begins with the childhood of Valentine (Tautou), who grows up on an immaculate mansion above an expansive garden. (It’s a setting that DP Mark Lee Ping Bing’s expert camerawork will explore nook-and-cranny, which is good, since the film rarely ever leaves it.) After finding a husband and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses, at which point the focus shifts to her surviving son Henri (Jérémie Renier) and his wife Mathilde (Laurent). Like her mother-in-law, Mathilde also produces bountiful offspring, and Mathilde’s bosom friend Gabrielle (Bejo) does likewise with her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps). Many more picturesque deaths follow, interspersed with many dialogue-free, slow-motion scenes of adorable children and good-looking adults basking cherubically in the golden sunlight, or striding gallantly through impeccably decorated hallways.
And that’s essentially it. What these people are like, how they pass the time, how they really feel about each other, what they talk about, where they live, and how they relate to the progress of modern history that is presumably occurring outside their mansion are details of little importance to this film. At one point, almost teasingly, Tran begins to sketch a curious sort of relationship between Gabrielle and Mathilde, who are freely physically affectionate with one another, and visit every single evening. But then a solemn voiceover informs us, “No one knows what they talked about. And they’re all dead now.”
Tran’s sheer skill as a filmmaker ensures that some of these births and deaths land with great poignancy. For example, shortly after Valentine sends her oldest boys, identical twins, off to an unspecified war, we see the arrival of a government communiqué that clearly augers bad news, and as the camera lingers on the letter, we notice that there are two identical ones. Yet so often are these sorts of scenes repeated that it becomes safe to assume any child seen bedridden with an artfully applied sheen of sweat, or even lingered upon in closeup longer than the others, will no longer be a part of the film going forward.
Of course, none of this is accidental. And as the film goes on, one begins to grasp the simple yet ineluctably profound message that the director is sending: Birth is always a miracle, no matter how many times we witness it; death is always sudden and often meaningless, no matter how many times it touches our lives; and adding our own tiny entry to the succession of generations may be our only lasting mark on history. Perhaps there are few truths more profound than this, and the obvious affection with which Tran lingers on footage of infants swaddled in their mothers’ arms can’t help but be affecting in itself. But without any such attention paid to the eventful span in between these two extremes, the gossamer beauty of life that the film clearly wants us to ponder too often goes missing.