'Les Destinees': A Soujourn in la Ville de Dulls

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 26, 2002

He is a Protestant minister, heir to a Limoges porcelain fortune, the estranged husband of a straying wife.

She is the young, cosmopolitan niece of the owner of a cognac bottler, her beauty equaled only by her generosity of spirit.

Can this marriage be saved? More to the point, can viewers be saved the time and tushie-fatigue it takes to endure a tutorial on the French porcelain industry, international markets between the wars and marital fidelity?

Yes, if they heed these words: "Les Destinees" is beautiful. It's about gorgeous landscapes and gorgeous pottery and gorgeous costumes. It's about passion and brandy and labor unrest. It's about France, it's about Life, and it's about three hours long.

Adapted by Olivier Assayas from the Jacques Chardonne novel "Les Destinees Sentimentales," the movie is full of sumptuous production values and grand camera work, it's filled to the brim with period details spanning three decades of French history. Indeed, it's so crammed with scenes and vistas and pretty moments that it's left a few crucial things out, like character development and coherence.

Charles Berling plays Jean Barnery, who suspects his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), of infidelity and sends her away; he soon meets Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart), who decides he's Monsieur Right. After Jean and Pauline navigate a few obstacles (returning wife, bourgeois disapproval, tuberculosis), they wind up together in a Swiss chalet, rusticating in sensuous bliss until Jean's past catches up with him: He's needed to manage the family porcelain factory. There are violent strikes, the arrival of a son, World War I – most of which happen off-screen. "Les Destinees" is more concerned with watching Jean growing older and more drawn, while poor Pauline tries to figure out why he's lost interest in her.

"Les Destinees" couldn't be a more radical departure for Assayas, whose most recent film was the inventive, witty 1996 thriller "Irma Vep." In that film the director reached back to cinema's silent and avant-garde eras for much of his inspiration. Here he looks to classic, richly detailed historical dramas for cues. But where the best of those movies created vast yet tightly compressed stories, Assayas continually loses the narrative thread. In his obsessive focus on visual incidentals, the filmmaker neglects his central characters, who aren't nearly absorbing or fully realized enough to lead the audience on such an epic journey. The result is an ambitious, lush and interminable film.

"Les Destinees" is an exquisite snore.

LES DESTINEES (NR, 180 minutes) – In French with subtitles at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company