By Jeffrey M. Anderson
One of my favorite actresses, Emmanuelle Béart, is no stranger to long movies.
She posed nude for Michel Piccoli's painter in Jacques Rivette's four-hour 1991 masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse, and breathed life into Proust's last chapter in Raul Ruiz's startling and brilliant three-hour Time Regained (2000).
If we stretch, we can also count her starring role as Manon of the Spring as the second half of Claude Berri's wonderful two-part story that began with Jean de Florette (1987).
So I breathlessly awaited Béart's new film, the three hour Les Destinées (shortened from Les Destinées sentimentales for us dim Americans). Add that to the fact that one of France's most reliable filmmakers, Olivier Assayas (Cold Water, Irma Vep and Late August, Early September) directed it.
So imagine my surprise when the film began to unroll like cold lead in December. Somehow, Assayas had made a Merchant-Ivory movie.
Assayas adapted a novel by Jacques Chardonne, following the usual Merchant-Ivory method of cramming a potential ten hours worth of material into three, but failing to use those three hours leisurely. In other words, it moves too slowly and too quickly at the same time. It's a thumpingly boring, sleep-inducing pace, like a metronome.
The story basically follows Jean Barnery (a miscast Charles Berling) through his boring life, giving up the priesthood, divorcing his first wife (Isabelle Huppert, wasted as a shrill harpie), marrying Pauline Pommerel (Béart) and taking over his family's pottery business, making elegant plates and cups. (The factory scenes showing these various "service" items being made are by far the most interesting parts.)
Over the course of 30 years, a man is liable to meet a few people, as Jean does. But the film glosses over each and every one of them. Scene after scene, we watch Jean talking with complete strangers -- or worse, two unknown characters talking with each other -- and we have no idea who they're supposed to be.
Indeed, the movie goes out of its way to cast three different actors to play Jean and Pauline's son Max at three different ages, for a total of about 2 minutes screen time. How are we supposed to get to know someone in that time?
Another scene shows a good-looking lothario chasing after Béart at a party. The film spends several minutes on him and we expect him to turn up again at some point. He might have made an interesting alternative to that twit Jean. But the character never turns up again, or even if he did, it was long after I�d forgotten what he looked like.
I grew suspicious when I noticed that the movie happens to come in at 180 minutes exactly, and that it's divided into three chapters, with each chapter lasting precisely one hour. It's as if Assayas were more concerned with the movie's running time than with its emotional impact. It reminded me of István Szabó's dreadful Sunshine (2000), which did the same thing. What kind of by-the-numbers filmmaking is this and why do people fall for it?
Les Destinées gets even worse in its third hour, when the actors have to wear laughable age makeup, which reminded me of the vile A Beautiful Mind, a movie I do not like to be reminded of. Béart is so beautiful that she can't possibly be aged properly with makeup. Still, she manages a few superb moments by projecting weariness with her eyes and body.
As a matter of fact, Béart is the only thing that kept me from walking out on this snoozer.
It's absolutely impossible to see any of the wicked electricity Assayas put into his best film to date, Irma Vep. From that movie, it looked as if Assayas would take over the world, grinning maniacally through his camera like a Godard or a Lynch. But instead he opted for a little respect and probably a bunch of awards with this godawful boring slug of a movie.