[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Three hours long and a far cry from his ultramodern chronicles of disenchantment, Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées sentimentales ranges from the winter of 1900 to springtime some thirty years later. In so doing, the film recalls a genre that was in vogue around the time its own story ends — during the Depression, when cine-sagas of families weathering the seasons and storms of history somehow reassured audiences that “we’ll get through this one too.”
The central characters are Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a Protestant minister in the mostly Catholic region of Charante, and Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), a young woman who comes from England to live with her brandy-maker uncle after the death of her father. Their separate and shared story arcs include Jean’s divorce from his first wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert); an exhilarating country house ball presided over by the shades of Ophüls, Renoir, and Minnelli; Jean’s resignation from the ministry and his contracting tuberculosis (more or less the same process); the couple’s marriage, followed by several idyllic years in Switzerland. Then the future of the Barnery family business, a porcelain factory in Limoges, is at risk, and of all the offspring, only the lapsed bourgeois Jean can save it. It is the beginning of a new ministry — capitalist, but also aesthetic and spiritual. And also just about time for World War I….
The remarkable thing is how evocatively Assayas manages to individuate several dozen characters in a variety of locations and situations without leaving the viewer feeling either slighted or bogged down in details. The screenplay (by Assayas and Jacques Fieschi, after a novel by Jacques Chardon) makes a virtue of the usual movie saga failing, that events seem rushed and incomplete: here, expected climaxes, milestone moments, are walked up to and then omitted almost absentmindedly, as other things take precedence in lives that are always in flux. This is a rare saga in which you really believe the people age and alter over time. As Jean says late in the film, “It’s odd having been a man you can’t remember.” By its end, we know all these people several times over, because they’ve been different people along the way. Three hours seems a fair price to pay for that.