Les Destinées Sentimentales

destineesBased on the epic novel by Jacques Chardonne, Les Destinées Sentimentales charts thirty years of French history through the eyes of two star-crossed lovers.

Set among the bourgeois protestant families of the Limoges region of France, Les Destinées follows the career of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), the reluctant heir of a traditional porcelain business who must learn to steer his way through the frantic beginnings of the 20th century.

Barnery starts out as a minister in the small Protestant community of Barbazac, but after a scandalous divorce leaves his vocation and young daughter and embarks on a passionate romance with the orphaned Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), a headstrong atheist whom he will later marry. The two wives are polar opposites, and tap into different areas of Barnery’s character. The first Mme Barnery, played by an icy Isabelle Huppert, exemplifies religious stricture; Pauline’s wide eyes and welcoming smile suggest a warm, open sexuality.

Barnery eventually returns from self-imposed exile in a Swiss idyll to run the family porcelain business. His meticulousness, ambition and evolving creativity mean that he is eminently suited to the task, and he finds fulfilment in fussing over moulds and designing bold new patterns to satisfy the hungry if unsophisticated American market.

This three-hour epic is beautifully filmed, crammed full with lingering shots of the French and Swiss countryside, and the attention to detail is flawless. The two leads give a powerful performance, portraying with great conviction the stresses of married life, as well as its lighter moments. But in its bid to remain faithful to Chardonne’s original saga, the film feels starchy in places. Weighty conversation drag on for too long, whilst key events including Barnery’s time in the trenches are merely glossed over, and loose ends go untied. For example, a handsome but decidedly shady character stalks Pauline in an early dance, she manages to escape him, and we never see him again. Likewise, the transformation of Barnery’s daughter, Aline, from the teenage rebel who is scandalously “seen everywhere” to a closeted deaconess, is not adequately explained.

Though sometimes slow to unravel, Les Destinées presents the shifting moral, social and economic values of early 20th Century France in a fresh and engaging way. The studied performances of Béart and Berling are the film’s greatest asset.

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