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'Les Destinees'

Fate plays host to troubled souls in 'Les Destinees'

Saturday, October 19, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Cognac and porcelain do not exactly go together but are equally delicate in the production. So is the situation of two Protestant families who produce those delectables in 19th-century, 90-percent Catholic France.

"Les Destinees"

Rating: PG-13 in nature for adult themes and subtitles.

Starring: Charles Berling, Emmanuelle Beart, Isabelle Huppert.

Director: Olivier Assayas.

Critic's call:


"Les Destinees" is a sumptuously beautiful -- and extravagantly overlong -- saga of the intertwining of commercial and amorous fate over three decades in the life of Jean Barnery.

At the outset, our hero, Jean (Charles Berling), heir to his family's china plant in Limoges, is no industrialist but rather a minister -- and a troubled one. Suspecting his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), of infidelity, he sends her and their young daughter away. But he is soon attracted to beautiful Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart) of the Pommerel cognac family (members of his congregation). But there is a host of problems between them.

How big a host? Big. You name the problem: personal, spiritual, economic, emotional -- they've got it. And they, as well as we, have got to negotiate it all through good times and bad, divorce and Swiss exile, World War I, labor turmoil and the Depression.

That is a poor attempt to capsulize the events of a three-hour period piece that refuses to abide by anybody's idea of pacing except that of director Olivier Assayas. The result, in its scope, is akin to the literary marathons of Marcia Davenport's "Valley of Decision" (a saga of steel) or D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love"-type sagas of coal. Whether you find the protagonists of the former as compelling as the latter is a matter of taste.

In any case, you will be treated to exquisite cinematography of the idyllic French countryside. Even French urban-factory life is romantic in the expert hands of Eric Gautier.

The performances are beautiful in every way. Those who love and remember Isabelle Huppert from her '70s ingenue roles will be particularly enthralled.

"Les Destinees sentimentales" (Sentimental Destinies) is the full French title of the film based on Jacques Chardonne's novel. But you can expect more ambivalence than sentimentality.

"I can't get used to being happy," is Jean's fitful attempt to explain himself.

By the end of this huge, upper-class soap opera -- neither can we.

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