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Les Destinees Sentimentales

Olivier Assayas

Sentimental Destinies

An ambitious undertaking for director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Late August, Early September), Les Destinees sentimentales is an exquisitely-wrought adaptation of Jacques Chardonne’s 1936 novel. Beginning in 1900 and passing through more than 30 years in the life of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), this epic film is divided into three parts, titled The Wife of Jean Barnery, Pauline and The Ivory Service. First seen as a minister who is married to the stern Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), Barnery will abandon his faith, his wife and his vocation. A second marriage to Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart) brings a blissful idyll in the Swiss mountains, where the couple live a life of quiet devotion to each other and their son Max. Unable to accept the happiness that has come to him, a restless Barnery eventually rebels against his contentment, switching his energies to developing the family porcelain business in Limoges. War, economic adversity and the burden of personal regrets mark the passage of the years as the pair drift slowly apart. As circumstances change once more, Jean faces the prospect of his own mortality comforted that he has known such love in his life.

Stately rather than stuffy, the film is never less than beautiful and is filled with images that could be frozen and framed. The attention to detail lends it an extraordinary richness. Every tiny aspect of design and glazing involved in the manufacture of the porcelain or the loving care that goes into the production of cognac combine to crystallise the values and pace of a different age. The characters belong to a class in which feelings were rarely articulated and appearances could count for everything. Although Isabelle Huppert is relegated to the sidelines for much of the film, Emmanuelle Beart and Charles Berling are more than a match for the emotional complexities of their roles. A spirited Beart convinces us that Pauline has both the inner steel to disregard conventions and the resolve to stand by the man fate has chosen as her soul-mate. Berling also has the ability to convey his inner turmoil through a look, a gesture or a flicker of pain.

Given the calibre of the performances and the beauty of the images, it seems a fair assumption that most art-house audiences will have the patience for such a precisely crafted and genteel epic. Never mind the width, feel the quality.

France, 2000.
English subtitles.
Colour.
Panavision anamorphic.
Dolby digital stereo.
180 min.

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