Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Les Destinées sentimentales

2000, France/Switzerland, directed by Olivier Assayas

The usual ponderous conventions of the period picture are thrown out the window in director Olivier Assayas's absorbing saga of provincial upper-class Protestant life in the first decades of the twentieth century. Assayas's exceptionally mobile camera - so swift-moving that it's almost disorientating, especially in the first hour, which sketches life for the younger set in exuberant fashion - is a counterpoint to the more leisurely set-up favoured by most directors faced with period material (Alain Corneau's series of fixed tableaux in his beautiful but chilly Tous les matins du monde provides a useful contrast). The sense of constant motion is especially heightened when following the character of Pauline Pommerel (Emmanuelle Béart), an independent-minded young woman who acts as a catalyst for change in the set, even staid existence of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), the son of an industrialist who has chosen a career as a pastor. Although the narrative is occasionally elliptical (Assayas chooses to have more than one key event take place offscreen), and the music is sometimes rather too obvious (particularly in underlining the 'happy' periods in the characters' lives), the sense of a veryparticular time and place (centered around the porcelain industry in Limoges) is exceptional. The film, like Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, wears its period trappings lightly, ensuring they don't get in the way of the action - never better, perhaps, than in the wonderful early scenes at a gala evening, shot with the same immediacy as the central party scene in Assayas's brilliant 1994 film L'Eau froide. The performances are solid to outstanding: Béart has perhaps never been more radiant, such that when her character experiences a downturn, it's like a light going out.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States