LES DESTINÉES SENTIMENTALES B+
aka: Les Destinées
France Switzerland (180 mi) 2000 ‘Scope d: Olivier Assayas
One of the more ambitious works of this often modern and experimental filmmaker, making what amounts to an homage to Jean Renoir’s THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937), a lengthy, old-fashioned costume drama that depicts turn of the century French aristocracy on the decline, as seen through the eyes of those few inheriting family fortunes, who are radically effected by World War I, as afterwards they’re forced to watch their wealth and privilege disappear before their eyes, replaced by a new emerging social order that pays little attention to class. Much like Renoir’s film, the story is advanced through an examination of relationships, suggesting mankind’s common experiences should prevail above economic or political divisions. Adapted from Jacques Chardonne’s 1934 novel by the same name, supposedly beloved in France, as by the end it carries some melancholic, Proustian reflections about what constitutes a valued life, the film is divided into three one-hour chapters examining three decades in the life of a wealthy porcelain manufacturing family. As the 19th century draws to a close, the film opens with a funereal solemnity, as we see a horse-driven cart carrying the casket of a porcelain magnate with a line of workers following behind as they proceed to the burial site, a picture of unity and common purpose that will be split apart over the next few decades. While the film has an epic sweep, with sumptuously beautiful cinematography by Eric Gautier, Assayas creates an impressionistic journey of how many of the characters react to their changing lives, where the atmospheric style is maintained throughout, but the storyline as adapted by Assayas grows weaker as the film progresses, where the weight of the ambitious demands of a three-hour film are simply not met, leaving gaps and holes where too often very little happens, lulls that simply can’t match the surging moments occurring elsewhere.
Jacques Chardonne’s own family comprises the source material for his trilogy Les Destinées Sentimentales, where he was raised Protestant in the small town of Barbezieux, which even today has fewer than 5000 inhabitants, but is in the heart of the cognac wine growing region, where his father came from a family of cognac traders, his brother-in-law was part of the Delamain cognac dynasty, while his American mother was a Quaker and heiress to the Haviland porcelain dynasty. Chardonne’s social conservatism supported the Vichy government during the war where he was denounced and imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator, where he was afraid of being shot as his literature was banned for a short period after the war and scrutinized for its “Frenchness.” Francois Mitterrand, French President for 13 years, who actually worked briefly for the Vichy regime during the war, was born in a nearby region of Jarnac, and Chardonne was his favorite writer, anchored in French tradition, particularly the extremely conservative, highly classical style, with its descriptive focus upon regionalism and being tied to the land. The film itself is a long and sprawling work, a detailed-oriented period piece that spans several decades from the early 1900’s to the years between the World Wars, tracing the impact of changing times both culturally and economically on a single family, while following one particular romance. The film follows Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), born into a porcelain manufacturing family in the Limoges region of France, where the ruling families in the region make china and Cognac, transferring power within their own families in the traditional way from one generation to the next. Their porcelain factory caters to only the wealthiest tastes, creating a handcrafted, exquisitely designed china, much of it shipped to affluent Americans. Over time, they are eclipsed by modern factories that can mass-produce products more cheaply, undercutting their profits, challenging their working methods, and eventually their very survival. The film contrasts the wealthy bosses living lives of luxury and ease while the factory workers continue to live in poverty, which interestingly remains out of sight throughout the entire film. Instead, what the viewer witnesses is only the most aristocratically resplendent wealth on display.
Jean Barnery initially defies tradition, leaving the family business to become a Protestant minister, where he’s seen as an overly severe intellectual prone to self-criticism in a region that is isolated from Catholics who outnumber them 10 to 1 in France. While he gives voice to the spiritual needs of the community, he represents an ingrained religious traditionalism, the picture of austerity, like the keepers of the gate guarding any and all trespasses. Accordingly, he is completely inflexible when it comes to what he suspects is his wife’s infidelity, seen throwing Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) and their daughter Aline out of the house, sending them off to exile in a smaller estate, all in response to vicious rumors casting aspersions on her character, where appearances matter more than reality. Nathalie resolutely denies any wrongdoing and stubbornly refuses to forgive him afterwards, forbidding him from ever seeing or speaking to their daughter. This crack in the façade of moral certainty has never stopped the self-righteous, where marriage is about responsibility and obligation, with little thought for happiness or love. Surprisingly then, Jean develops a growing affection for a member of his congregation, Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), divorcing Nathalie, giving her all shares to the business, while he resigns from the clergy and marries Pauline, retreating into his own self-imposed exile where he lives a luxurious life in Switzerland while receiving monthly stipends from the family business. This segment couldn’t be more luxuriously beautiful, even idyllic, almost like a mirage, living on a pristine mountainside overlooking a tranquil lake, where he is the picture of Gustav Mahler retreating to his mountainside summer villas to compose music, but Jean has no such aspirations, where he and Pauline are simply happy and in love, where they haven’t a care in the world. The idea of living in such extravagance without having to work is a bit mind-altering, and even today, one-hundred years later, it remains hard to comprehend. How was this all possible? And indeed, we never see the workers that struggle in the factory each day to make it all possible. From this dreamlike interlude, war strikes, sending a jolt of reality into this harmonious picture of love without hindrance.
While Jean and Pauline represent an idealized and mostly unattainable love, Pauline is a thoroughly modern woman who isn’t remotely religious or concerned about what others think of her, but then she’s allowed to live in a vacuum completely shut out from the rest of the world. This kind of ivory tower existence only exists for a few, completely absent any real work or responsibilities, where love seen in this light is little more than a fairy tale. Pauline dreads returning to the factory in Barbezieux, knowing what kind of small-town mentality exists there, where everyone meddles in everyone else’s affairs, proclaiming if they go, “This is the end of our love.” Unfortunately, this film is filled with swooning proclamations like this one, which are simply overexaggerated gestures that suggest the dream is over, but hardly the love. Jean is quickly ushered back to take over as head of what has become an ailing company under poor leadership, where he has the backing of his family and the workers, at least initially, until the stock market collapse wipes out the American market, initiating a series of ongoing struggles with the constantly striking workforce that will drag on for years. Of interest, the socialist journalist writing on behalf of the worker’s interests, who also served at the front lines during the war, remains a trusted and valued friend of Jean, even socially, perhaps because he so clearly delineates the opposition’s point of view. What is clear is that the family business becomes more than an obligation, but a reason for being, a philosophic ideal largely built upon old ideas about privilege, yet it also ties into the director’s concept about art, providing a near documentary detail about the workings of the factory as it goes about the production of what they hope is the most exquisitely perfect piece of porcelain, elevated to an artform, where nothing less is acceptable. By the end, years fly by and Jean, weakened by a medical affliction, ruminates about his life, contending “Everything I've done is worthless. I was always wrong.” Again this kind of cheap melodrama takes the focus away from what is a superbly directed film, given a novelesque sweep of grandeur and noblesse, showing some beautiful patience in this epic document that in the end cherishes those small, seemingly insignificant moments that stay with us forever.