Olivier Assayas's period piece Les Destinées Sentimentales--promoted in the U.S. simply as Les Destinées--represents a departure for the director. Like his wayfaring protagonist, Assayas makes a noble effort in the name of love but gets in over his head all the same.
Organized into three orderly parts which presumably mirror Jacques Chardonne's three-volume source work, Les Destinées covers 30-odd years in the life of Jean Barnery (Charles Berling) and his loves. When the film begins, the youthful Jean--then a minister--frets over his wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), who is tainted by scandal. At her expense, Jean liberates himself and gravitates toward the luminous Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart). Finally, Jean feels the pull of the family porcelain business--his third love--and nearly immerses himself in the pursuit of perfection.
Les Destinées intriguingly puts the conflict between individual worth and the grandiose influences of society and industry on the agenda. Jean has numerous opportunities to choose happiness (or, in other words, the lives of himself and his loved ones) over a sense of duty to the world and its master, time. Even in the quiet bliss of Switzerland--alone at last with a woman who loves and cares for him--Jean feels the obligation of the rat race. Pointedly, neutral Switzerland gives way to the twin conflicts of world war and world business. Happiness itself, it seems, is too true, too boring (Jean opines, half-joking, that he "can't get used to being happy"); entitled men must obsessively attempt to manufacture an ideal of perfection, represented most keenly here by meticulously designed and crafted porcelain plates. Unsurprisingly, Assayas is hesitant to judge his hero for his single-minded pursuit.
Assayas engineers a triumph of detailed period design and lively photography (particularly of country greenery), and the narrative not so subtly reflects a nostalgia for this sort of craftsmanship. But Assyas periodically pauses along the way to smell the flowers, skip off after supbplots, or philosophize through doubtful, fortune cookie dialogue ("It's madness to draw someone into your destiny or to enter theirs"). Though the film rambles and repeats itself (generating a langorous, soapy, television miniseries feel), it does have direction. But when it arrives at its destination, Les Destinées too apparently hasn't earned its three-hour running time.
In an ensemble film of this size, the acting talent becomes especially crucial. Unfortunately, leading man Berling lacks wattage. Playing a well-respected but not especially well-liked man, Berling allows himself to be as admirable yet uninteresting as his character. We can intellectualize what Jean is thinking as the story wears on, but Berling rarely makes us feel it. To Huppert's credit, she is able to generate measures of antipathy and sympathy for the desperately unhappy Nathalie, while the luminous Béart subtly conveys decades of (mostly) loyal heartache. It's also worth noting that the production handles the three-decade-plus aging process deftly.
The ultimate irony is that--for Jean's outsized dread of mediocrity--Les Destinées rarely displays enough ingenuity or urgency to spark the material to life. After hours of navel-gazing, Jean's simple answer to life's rhetorical questions rings true but feels more like an exhausted collapse than a euphoric release. Despite its virtues, Les Destinées is a near-miss.