Musicians often talk of the “heavenly lengths” of many of Schubert’s pieces–a prolongation that achieves not excess but near-transcendence. That’s probably what Olivier Assayas was aiming at in his languid, splendidly mounted screen adaptation of Jacques Chardonne’s multi-generational saga “Les Destinees Sentimentales,” which centers on the long-lived romance of Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart), a beautiful girl who grows into an even more beautiful woman, and Jean (Charles Berling), a Protestant minister who gives up his calling and joins his family’s industrial operation after divorcing his flighty wife and marrying her. The story, set mostly in the central area of France near Limoges, spans the period from the late nineteenth century into the 1930s, and involves scores of characters from the Barnery family of porcelain-makers, to which Jean belongs, and the cognac-producing Pommerels, related to Pauline; it also touches upon many of the most significant events of the epoch, including the First World War and the Great Depression. Despite the broad canvas, however, Assayas’ intent is to keep the story an intimate one in which everyone and everything else is significant only to the degree that it touches upon the central couple.
But however wonderful Schubert’s protracted compositions are, mere size is not a guarantee of quality. There are movies–like pieces of music–that are expansive and rich; but there are many others that are simply long. “Les Destinees,” as this film is called in a title that seems the sole thing about it that’s been shortened from its source, is gorgeous to look at but insufferably tedious and turgid. (By the time it’s reaching a close and Jean confesses, “I’m all worn out,” a viewer is likely to know exactly how he feels.) It’s basically what has been called a coffee-table movie, a succession of splendidly mounted individual scenes that together have very little dramatic payoff. It’s hard to tell whether this is entirely Assayas’ fault; it may well be that the sheer dimensions of Chardonne’s huge work (published in three volumes) render it impervious to successful dramatization, or that doing a proper job of it would require something of the size and scope of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sixteen-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” But under any circumstances Assayas would seem the wrong person to attempt the transformation. He stages everything almost as a series of virtually static tableaux, making for an oddly static piece in which the sequences are truncated, the time shifts overly abrupt, and the characters so briefly sketched that we barely come to know most of them, let alone care about their fate. (There is one major exception: an elaborate ballroom episode toward the start, which is obviously intended as a homage to Visconti’s “The Leopard” and also recalls the similar sequence in Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but is inferior to both.) The film also makes remarkably little of the fact that the story is about a Protestant minority living in an essentially Catholic environment. Nor does it have anything coherent to say about what would seem, given the Calvinist background of its characters, to be one of the story’s theme: the idea of predestination or fate controlling human affairs despite what individuals might want or work toward.
What remains is a curiously constricted epic, sort of like what “Gone With The Wind” might have been had it been set against the economics of cotton production rather than the Civil War. World War I does make an appearance here, but it’s only in two brief sequences (one at a hospital, another at a town behind the front); what’s permanently center-stage is the Barnery porcelain enterprise–as Pauline exclaims in one of her rare moments of anger at her husband’s business interests, “The factory! It’s always about the factory!” The cast is certainly game–Beart is beautiful while Berling, a near ringer for Keir Dullea, is properly austere, and Isabelle Huppert is even better as Jean’s difficult ex-wife, though the character’s motives are obstinately obscure. But ultimately their costumes strike one as more impressive than the actors wearing them, and the cinematography by Eric Gautier and Katia Wyszkop’s production design are the true stars. When you scratch the polished luster of “Les Destinees,” however, it turns out that there’s something suspiciously close to cinematic styrofoam underneath.