Note: This review was originally posted at CriterionCast.com on November 2, 2010
Les Destinées (2000, Assayas)
Les Destinées, based on the Jacques Chardonne novel, is Oliver Assayas’ take on the period film. Clocking in at three hours, there is plenty of time to get to know the story’s central characters, Jean and Pauline. Unfortunately, the film does not capitalize on its length, resulting in a distancing thirty-year saga, starting at the end of the 19th century and ending soon after the stock market crash of 1929. Lacking in transitional elements, the film creates a mosaic of moments in the lives of Jean (Charles Berling) and Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart), as well as glimpses into the lives of those surrounding them. While this lofty goal works in Assayas’ favor, his resistance to truly delve into the emotions of these characters results in a film that drags and is never all that involving.
This is the story of Jean Barnery, who, at the beginning of the film sends his first wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) away, causing gossip around his hometown: Barbazac. He is a Protestant minister and his family owns the Barnery porcelain factory which accounts for their wealth. At a ball he meets Pauline, an independent young woman who has just moved in with her Uncle Phillipe (Olivier Perrier). The film tracks their marriage and the trials and tribulations along with it. They move to Switzerland, where they live in peace, until Jean makes the decision to take over the family’s porcelain factory.
Assayas spends most of his time using the camera to follow his characters around in medium shot. The director does not seem to have much directorial ambition here outside of keeping visual track of the characters. This works best in an early ballroom scene featuring Beart. He does not create many observational moments for the audience to interpret. The audience’s active interpretation comes from the script, adapted by Assayas and Jacques Fieschi. While the script carries the characterization, it lacks the ability to dig deep into the emotions of the characters’.
I was prepared to complain about the almost complete lack of transitional elements throughout the film. Large amounts of time pass with little indication. The characters are in different places emotionally each time we see them with no attempt to show how they arrived there. It is particularly frustrating because it feels as if the audience is grasping at moments, trying to get a handle on a character, only to have it change suddenly. The last hour of Les Destinées is what changed my mind about the structure. In the film’s last section, Jean Barnery takes over the porcelain factory and in the end, looks back at his life. He speaks as if grabbing on to bits and pieces of moments. He remembers particular days. A key moment comes about halfway through the film’s third and final section. Pauline is telling Jean about how detached he became from her after the war. He responds with this: “It’s odd having been a man you don’t remember. It happens maybe once or twice in a lifetime”. This as well as the dialogue found in the final minutes illustrates Assayas’ intentions; he is providing a mosaic of key moments in the lives of Jean and Pauline starting from when they enter each other’s lives. This is why many supporting characters seem like loose threads; they appear, seem important and are never seen again. The film follows moments through time as opposed to following a trajectory with many different character dynamics. This essential element of Les Destinées works.
While the film’s structure is successful, the lack of characterization remains a significant flaw. Jean and Pauline are certainly somewhat developed. They are refreshingly not archetypal or simplistic. The lack of transitional elements in the characterization is excusable but there is a failure to scratch the surface of the characters at any given period of time. A lot more could have been done to capitalize on the three hours the film had to get inside these characters. Much could have been done with Jean’s spiritual suffering or Pauline’s transition into being a wife. There are so many situations that would have benefited from increased observation and exploration of the characters. It is difficult to get truly involved in a film that is three hours and keeps us at a relative distance throughout.
In addition, Jean is simply not a very engaging character. Charles Berling is wonderful in the part, but Jean fails to engage the audience on a regular basis. The film starts with Jean sending Nathalie away and the gossip surrounding it. It starts out with the breakdown of a marriage that the audience never has any commitment with or reason to care about. Jean becomes engaging whenever Pauline is on screen. Their early scenes before their marriage are fantastic because Assayas never puts their attraction to each other at the forefront. The characters understand their attraction to each other, but the audience is never outright shown this.
Les Destinées requires a lot of patience from the viewer and culminates in only mild payoff. The last hour is when the film really takes shape and becomes an involving work with characters that feel developed. Most of the film’s best scenes come from this final hour. One of them features Jean and Nathalie and another with their daughter Aline (Mia-Hansen-Love). The audience, as well as Jean and Pauline, feel the time that has passed in their lives and marriage. This makes their reminiscence relatable. The end of the film is perfect and is perhaps better than everything that came before. With all of this, the first two hours does not offer nearly as much as it should, especially considering the running time and the talent involved. Les Destinées is disappointing but offers enough by the end to make up for much of its weaknesses.