Directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Emmanuelle Béart, Charles Berling & Isabelle Huppert.
Based on the epic novel by Jacques Chardonne, 'Les Destinées Sentimentales' marks an elegant and elegiac departure for Olivier Assayas. Director of the contemporary classic 'Late August, Early September', here he tackles the first four decades of the 20th century through the lives of Jean Barnery (Berling), his wife Pauline (Béart) and his former wife Nathalie (Huppert). We first encounter Jean in 1900 as young Protestant minister, his marriage to Nathalie a failure, his faith battling doubt. Jean remains within the church but later falls in love with Pauline, a headstrong younger woman with no belief in God. He leaves his ministry and they settle in Switzerland as poor but content husband and wife. However Jean's past has not finished with him: the son of a wealthy porcelain manufacturer, he finds himself at the head of the family business when his sense of duty overpowers his love for Pauline.
Assayas' brave venture has much to recommend, most notably superb performances from the leads and their handling of the nature and nurture within married life. However, in his bid to remain faithful to Chardonne's work, he has cheated his audience of a more engaging film. At three hours, 'Les Destinées Sentimentales' is heavy going, but rather than pull the audience in, Assayas lets the story unfold at a creaking, reverential pace, as if each page of the novel has been transformed into celluloid. The troughs are numerous: ponderous conversations are given too much screen time, the First World War is glossed over and while his attention to detail is flawless, his desire to educate on the finer points of porcelain leaves you wondering whether you're watching a historical epic or the bigscreen answer to Antiques Roadshow.
Béart is brave and beautiful as the woman ahead of her time while Berling's depiction of the many faces of Jean Barnery (Preacher, Parent, Businessman, Soldier) are perfectly measured. Too bad that their ability to capture a moment is let down by a director unsure of when to pick his. Enduring love but exhausting cinema.