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May 18, 2000 2:00 AM
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CANNES REVIEW: Assayas 'Destinees' Beyond Cult Superstar

CANNES REVIEW: Assayas 'Destinees' Beyond Cult Superstar

Patrick Z. McGavin



(indieWIRE/5.18.2000) -- With the emotionally piercing, autobiographical "Cold Water," the exhilarating and nervy "Irma Vep," and the meditative and somber "Late August, Early September," the excellent 44-year-old filmmaker Olivier
Assayas
has proven himself one of the vital figures of international cinema.
He is one of the most prominent and daring voice of the new New Wave
generation of French filmmakers. Assayas occupies an important historical,
cultural and critical position within his national industry because like
Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, he started out as a critic for the seminal French film journal "Cahiers du Cinema."


In his expansive and beautiful new work, "Les Destinees
Sentimentales
," Assayas pushes his art to new levels of observational grace
and artistic prowess. On virtually every level -- formal, intellectual,
emotional -- this movie is a profoundly satisfying effort that wields the
qualities of his earlier work, a feeling for mood, character and feeling,
against a deep and vast historical, personal and social backdrop. This is
filmmaking of a very high order. Despite its three-hour running time, this
is the work that ought to push Assayas into unparalleled levels of public
and critical awareness -- no longer just the film festival or cultist superstar.


The new work, a vivid and panoramic adaptation of Jacques Chardonne's
well-received French novel, marks a number of personal and professional
breakthroughs. It is the first film Assayas has shot in widescreen, the
first of his films not based on one of his original scripts, and his first
period film. The reach and ambition of the work have apparently opened up
Assayas, forcing him to reconsider the essential nature of his deeply
personal cinema. All of his movies have an exceptional physical texture,
but they have been conceived in direct, more concentrated forms. Assayas is
after something much different here, an investigation into a national
consciousness during a time of personal, political and historical upheaval.
Chardonne's book is not well known in English, though in France it is
considered a singular achievement, an epic work beginning at the start of
the century and spanning three and a half decades.


The director collaborated on the script with the gifted writer Jacques
Fieschi
, and Assyas remarked in the press conference the novelist's flair
for "literary impressionism." From the opening half hour that brilliantly
introduces its characters, establishes its scope and uses a mobile,
beautifully moving camera to delineate this peculiar and distinct social
milieu, Assyas finds a tactile, clean visual language to impart and distill
information. At the center is a love story, though one complicated by the
profound social unease and political discord of the first half of the 20th
century. The work is divided into three sections: "The wife of Jean
Barney," "Pauline," and "The Ivory Connection." Beginning in the winter,
1900, unfolding in Barbazac, in the Charente region of France, the film
charts the interlocking actions of a powerful Protestant family of
industrialists coping with the considerable changes of modernism, war,
severe economic changes and shifting sexual roles.


With the exception of the opening title card announcing the year 1900
and a late reference in the film to the American stock market crash of 1929,
Assayas never resorts to off-screen narration or intertitles to denote the
passage of time. Instead he marks it cinematically through subtle
suggestions of changing weather or the altered physical presence of its
characters. Jean Barney (Charles Berling), a stern, ambitious, brooding
Protestant pastor removes his wife, Natalie (Isabelle Huppert) and their
young daughter from the family estate because of her presumed infidelity.
Pauline (Emmanuel Beart), who's returned from a two-year exile in London,
seeks to assert her individuality and fight against the restrictive social
order. The highest achievement of the opening hour is the astonishing sweep
and movement at a social ball that suggests a brilliant merging of Orson
Welles'
"The Magnificent Ambersons" and Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard."


The scene introduces its psychological tension, examining character
through motivation and desire, movement and physical expression. The second
hour follows the more subjective perspective of Pauline, the free thinker,
who nurses Charles back to his health after he nearly dies from
tuberculosis, marries him, and the two settle in Switzerland and a have a
son. Here Assyas works in a finer emotional temperament, and as the title
suggests, the two move toward realizing their shared destinies. With the
death of the family patriarch, their porcelain business is suffering heavy
losses. Jean's ineffectual cousin who manages the business is removed and
he is put in his place.


The movie achieves a novelistic density in the final third, capturing
through gesture, action, speech rhythms, the profound historical movements
of the period -- death, war, and severe economic reversals. Assayas perfectly
leaves open acts to interpretation, though it seems obvious that Jean's
obsession with craftsmanship, innovation, even "art," in the company
business is a moving metaphor for the act of creating itself. In these
sections, Jean is increasingly isolated and cut off, though the sexual
energy, physical attraction and emotional attachment between the couple,
even if seriously strained, remains sharply in evidence.


The acting is almost uniformly excellent, irrespective of the size of
the performance, though special mention should be accorded Berling, Beart,
Huppert and Olivier Perrier. But a significant part of that must be
attributed to the sharp, graceful, intelligent writing. Eric Gautier's
camerawork is quietly spectacular. Finally, "Les Destinee Sentimentales"
marks singular evidence of an artist's maturity and growth. It is not
easily forgotten.

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