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Les Destinées Sentimentales (Olivier Assayas) 2002


    Starting in 1900 and spanning over thirty years afterward, Les Destinées Sentimentales Oliver Assayas’ three hour period drama, is most remarkable not because of its epic scope, but because of the startling intimacy it achieves despite that breadth. Consider the stunning dance sequence early on in which the hand-held camerawork tightly frames nearly every shot in a roaming close-up that serves to remind the audience just how cramped the space is, while simultaneously laying it out for us. The scene is no mere mood-setter, however, as Assayas packs even the most incidental moments of the film with plenty of narrative thrust. Chronicling the dealings of a French porcelain company over the years, the film is often more intrigued by the long-term ramifications of people’s actions than the heat of the moment, but it never allows those moments to feel the least bit insignificant or false.


    The main relationship in the film, between the Protestant pastor Jean (Charles Berling) and Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), a young woman in his congregation, is beset on all sides by pressures that would drive them apart. Assayas works up such a frenzy by chronicling their relationship that it’s almost amazing that he still can make the arrival of the First World War have as much impact as it does, basically rendering their concerns moot for its duration. Szabo’s epic Sunshine attempted, and failed, to deliver the same amalgamation of national and family history that Les Destinées so gracefully recounts. Both films feature families of European artisans, but the treatment here is far less quaint. Instead of following the heir to the factory as he searches for a lost recipe as in Sunshine, Les Destinées lets the artistic struggle lie within its protagonist. The scenes in which the design and craftsmanship of the porcelain that powers the province’s economy is described are genuinely interesting here, because the audience is made to realize that the livelihoods of the characters as well as the traditions of the family are at stake. 

    Despite the title, Les Destinées Sentimentales only feels sentimental when we recall the idealism that existed at the film’s start, and lament that it was pulverized by the realities of the world. Still, the film’s greatest points require the dashing of idealistic notions. The faith so determinedly clung to by the characters at the start of the film wavers throughout, but then is revived when we see Jean tell his wife “I believe in resurrection” as he’s on what may be his deathbed. Instead of being built upon unfounded assumptions and the comfort of routine, however, the hard-earned spiritual conviction that arises at the picture’s close is the result of true wisdom. Like their marriage, which required the flexibility to sustain the heartaches that life threw at them, Jean and Pauline’s faith is a malleable, and constantly maturing, thing. The entrance of Aline, Jean’s daughter, into a religious life shows the cycle as it begins to repeat.


    Films that are observant enough to see a macro view of character behavior, yet detailed enough to let us feel surprised by the progressions in the lives of their characters are too rare. Assayas has crafted in Les Destinées a film that tells us much without ever feeling preachy. Berling and Béart’s performances are of the highest caliber. Unlike so many films, their characters’ temperaments change greatly as they age, and the superb makeup that they don never looks less than convincing. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, especially Isabelle Huppert, who endows Jean’s first wife with such marvelously complicated calculation that even her obedience feels like a ploy. Because of its rare immediacy and surprising reach, Les Destinées allows us a rare and gratifying chance to spend time with characters as they truly change. The sheer delicacy with which it presents those transformations, however, makes it truly special.

 * * * * 


Jeremy Heilman