- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

''People have a way of picking up and leaving in this family," observes a character in "Les Destinees," a French domestic and social saga derived from a novel of the 1930s that uses the period of 1900-1929 as a historical backdrop.

It's not so much the picking up and leaving that eventually exhausts one's curiosity about the potentially interesting Barnery dynasty, which owes its renown to the products of a prestigious porcelain factory in Limoges. It's more a problem of lacking coherent and persuasive reasons to play along with pivotal departures and returns. There's also the nagging impression that not nearly enough Barnerys are getting into the thick of plot developments, which need all the colorful and active interlopers they can get.

The early sequences evoke baronial homes and picturesque business enterprises, such as a family cognac company in the Charente region, which becomes a stopover for Emmanuelle Beart as the heroine, Pauline. A wistfully beautiful orphan of 20, she resides briefly with her Uncle Philippe Pommerel (Olivier Perrier), a friend of the more successful and seemingly fertile Barnerys.

An eccentric but respected young Barnery, Charles Berling as Jean, has ended up in the small town of Barbizac as the pastor to a Protestant congregation. A scandal has prompted him to banish his wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), who insists that she is innocent of adultery with a notorious seducer named Dahlias (Remi Martin).

One of the script's little peculiarities is that one never discovers whether Nathalie is lying or telling the truth about this accusation. A factual basis would help because decades of separation result from the estrangement while Nathalie maintains her innocence. She persists in thinking of herself as the one and legitimate Madame Jean Barnery even after a divorce and her ex's remarriage to Pauline, a much nicer proposition.

Moreover, the prospect of Miss Huppert being positioned for terrifying scenes as an embittered, troublemaking shrew is so promising to contemplate that one hates to see it neglected. Out of what? A failure of imagination and waste of high-strung acting resources, as far as I can judge.

The only consolation for this thankless role: a slight shudder when Miss Huppert, so recently a bloodcurdler as the depraved aesthete of "The Piano Teacher," is depicted giving piano lessons to a daughter named Aline.

The creepy associations, alas, are all in one's head. Nathalie can't be blamed just because it suits the story to treat Aline shabbily. The poor child grows up without a dad and succumbs to all the snares of the 1920s, including a lesbian seducer. That dalliance, by the way, is allowed to be more than the rumor of indiscretion that hovered around her mother. A similar rumor is later foisted upon Pauline, but the movie seems to discredit it after starting it. You're dealing with that kind of screenplay.

After divorcing Nathalie, Jean leaves the church and goes into a prolonged idyllic Swiss exile with Pauline. At some point before World War I, his siblings and cousins urge him to salvage the porcelain business, supposedly desperate for renewed vision and leadership after the death of its founder, grandfather Robert Barnery. (I was hoping for a Barney Barnery somewhere in the family, maybe an American cousin, but "Les Destinees" failed to oblige.)

The second Mrs. Barnery would prefer permanent serenity and solitude in their alpine chalet, but she reluctantly consents to stand by her man while he struggles to become a captain of industry. World War I, rumors of labor unrest and inroads by cheap imported dinnerware take their toll on Jean's efforts to sustain the Barnery tradition of quality.

Pauline's enduring aversion to business doesn't prevent her from volunteering sound advice as Jean sinks into frail health at the close of the 1920s. In fact, it looks as if an elegant woman's touch is an enhancement the company could have used decades earlier.

The running time approaches three hours, and the approach grows perceptibly sluggish at about the halfway point. For the purposes of epic storytelling, director Olivier Assayas miscalculates his reserves of dramatic momentum and character depth. He begins to confuse the movie with a museum piece, as rare and precious as a Barnery table setting of the Pauline revival period, which just so happens to coincide with the movie's all too welcome fade-out, leaving the impression that poor Europe has been pooped since at least 1929.

The introductory episodes stir hopes of a movie as evocative as Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" or Claude Berri's "Jean de Florette" saga, which introduced the astonishing young Emmanuelle Beart as Jean's vindictive daughter Manon about 15 years ago.

Nothing of that magnitude starts to rise from a reasonably promising foundation of attractive period simulation and romantic susceptibility. Ultimately, even the opportunity to observe Miss Beart for hours at a time loses its allure because the system of illusion that surrounds her proves monotonous and inconclusive. For that alone, it would hard to forgive Olivier Assayas.


*1/2

TITLE: "Les Destinees" ("Les destinees sentimentales")

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, with occasional graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Olivier Assayas. Screenplay by Jacques Fieschi and Mr. Assayas. Based on the novel by Jacques Chardonne.

RUNNING TIME: 173 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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