True to the funeral that opens it, Les Destinées is haunted by the specter of mortality. Far from being lugubrious, however, the movie is at times thrillingly sensual, if not quite consistently engrossing. French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’s newest feature ultimately can’t bear the burden of its epic scope and length. Ambition outstripping achievement, it’s an anomalous movie — at once expansive and truncated, modern and musty. It’s not quite a folly, though it might be something worse: a middling epic. To cop a Johnny Carson quip, it’s two worthwhile hours stretched out over three.
Decorous and stately, Les Destinées is unlike anything Assayas has done before. He has built his reputation as a festival favorite with contemporary, urban films of bracing spontaneity. Les Destinées, by contrast, is detached and choreographed. It’s a sumptuous movie, possibly the most gorgeous thing he’s ever made, but it begs the question: do we want Assayas making artful objects of contemplation?
Adapted from Jacques Chardonne’s 1936 novel, Les Destinées Sentimentales — a much-loved text in its native land — Assayas’s movie charts three decades in the life of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), a priest in the provincial town of Barbazac and scion to a wealthy porcelain magnate. Told in three chapters, the movie opens as Jean’s wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), and daughter, Aline (played as a child by Joséphine Firino-Martell, and later by Mia Hansen-Love), prepare to run off at Jean’s behest because of some unexplained misunderstanding. Jean then meets the beautiful Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), the niece of a local cognac dealer. After another abortive attempt at saving his marriage, Jean divorces his wife, leaving her his entire fortune, and marries Pauline.
With his new wife, Jean leaves France for Switzerland, where the two lead a simple, idyllic existence. Before long, their picturesque sojourn comes to an end. Called upon by his family to save their porcelain franchise, Jean and Pauline, now with a son, move to Limoges. Jean becomes consumed by his mission to save the family business, at the expense of his marriage. War intrudes, as does a depression later on, and before he knows it, Jean lies in bed, near death, left to ruminate on his life.
As its title suggests, the pall of inevitability hangs over Les Destinées. The movie makes much of the Barnerys’ Protestantism, perhaps not least because of the religion’s determinist outlook. Tracing the vicissitudes of a man’s life, Assayas suggests that choice and free will pale beside the pull of duty, destiny, and history. The movie is beautiful throughout, but Jean’s flight to the Swiss Alps is virtually Edenic — not incidentally, it’s the one time in his life where passion and impulse trump his fatalistic outlook.
Throughout, Les Destinées maintains a lightness of spirit in spite of the potential pessimism of its subtext. With a lifetime to cover, the movie manages to be both novelistic and elliptical. At one point, we see a neglected Pauline begin an affair with a younger man. A couple of scenes later, an aged Jean and Pauline discuss the affair years after the fact. As the narrative mimics the evanescence of a lifetime, the effect is curious: Elusive and yet sweeping, the movie feels both hefty and hollowed out.
The erratic narrative makes Assayas’s efforts to inject a political agenda seem awkward. Like any good epic, Jean’s personal drama transpires against the backdrop of History — here including socialism, the labor movement, and the advance of globalism — occasionally represented by unconvincing parlor room talk. Characters lecture one another on the rise of the working class or the inequities of the free market, but these harangues stick out as lazy exposition.
Some critics have read Jean’s adventures as a porcelain maker of impeccable taste as a metaphor for the director’s own travails. Beleaguered by the demands of the market, Jean struggles to retain his artistic integrity. Still, the movie remains admirably ambiguous as to his “heroic” status: If Jean is the high-minded artist, then what are we to make of his neglect of his workers? Indeed, the movie might almost be read (perversely) as an elitist parable, in which egalitarianism and the restive proletariat are presented as hindrances to the creation of true and enduring art. Notwithstanding its occasional didacticism, the movie refuses to be reductive, insisting on the complexities immanent in human experience. Whether or not Assayas uses ambiguity to mask his own muddled thinking is an open question, but hardly a fatal flaw.
A devoted cineaste, Assayas also shows that he’s a natural-born filmmaker, creating with seeming ease images of supple beauty and breathtaking lightness. (Working with cinematographer extraordinaire Eric Gautier surely helps.) The film reflects a battle of sensibilities, a French “tradition of quality” versus Assayas’s urgency and panache. Let’s call it a draw. Working within a familiar genre, Assayas’s mise-en-scene is at times uniquely expressive. An early highlight is a lavish ball where the seed of Jean and Pauline’s affair is planted. Unabashedly quoting the climactic party in Luschino Visconti’s The Leopard (one of the most imitated sequences of all time), Assayas shoots the glamorous event hand-held and in-your-face, imparting a sense of immediacy into a sequence that other movies have portrayed with graceful formality.
Would that his imprimatur were more apparent throughout the movie. Pauline Kael, in a 1994 interview with Hal Aspen (The New Yorker, 21 March 1994), dismissively called Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence “Merchant-Ivory terrain.” I never agreed, but after seeing Les Destinées, I now now where Kael was coming from. With Les Destinées, Assayas has shown everyone that he can make a handsome, genteel period piece. Cold Water and Irma Vep, two earlier features, were vivid and volatile — they left you with a buzz. Impressive as Les Destinées is, I can’t muster anything more than mild admiration for it. “There is tranquillity in this grandeur,” Pauline tells Jean during their Alpine idyll. The line could apply to the movie as well. If anything, Les Destinées might be too placid. At three hours, the movie succumbs to too many longueurs.
Which isn’t to deny the movie its successes. The closing moments of Les Destinées may have the hint of elegy, but Assayas’s fervor for life and youth keeps peeking through. Les Destinées may open with a funeral, but it ends with a kind of resurrection. Reminiscent of the quiet transcendence of Wild Strawberries, the ending leaves Jean — and us — with the pleasant memory of better days rather than numbing finality. The closing credits play over earlier scenes from the movie, and it’s a wonderful touch — it plays like a moving scrapbook of our protagonists’ youth. Death awaits us all, but Assayas, with a humanist’s generosity, offers his characters the greatest gift art can give: immortality.