WITH FATE CONSPIRE
by Chris Dashiell
The art of the cinema, said Cocteau, consists in filming
"death at work." It preserves the image of life in movement, even as
that which has been filmed ages and dies. Those films which seek to
portray the arc of a person's life must partake of this pathos. The
viewer sees in the film what we can never see in reality - ourselves
as we were, and as time has made us forget.
Les Destinées Sentimentales, Olivier Assayas attempts
the form, similar to the lengthy novel or saga, in which the passage
of time itself is the main character (in fact, it was adapted from a
multi-volume epic by Jacques Chardonne). It's something completely new
for this director, who up until now has shied away from traditional
genres. Here he presents a three-hour movie that follows a man and a
woman through thirty tumultuous years of their lives, from the early
twentieth century through the Depression, and he maintains a delicate
feeling of gravity and solicitude for his characters throughout. He
proves himself capable on a wider canvas, while bringing something new
to the form as well.
Barnery (Charles Berling), whose rich family runs a great porcelain
factory in Limoges, has chosen a humble life as a Protestant minister.
But his unhappy marriage to a difficult woman (Isabelle Huppert) leads
to divorce, and he abandons his calling. He falls in love with Pauline
(Emmanuelle Béart), the beautiful niece of one of the town's
leading merchants, and they go to Switzerland to be married and live
a life of freedom from conventional material values. But the ties of
family call to him when his father dies, and his sister and brother
ask him to take over and rescue the porcelain business.
and his crew have done a great job of creating and populating a fictional
world. Every aspect - from the workings of the porcelain factory to
the rugged charm of the couple's Alpine home - is made real with patience
and detail. What makes this different from the usual period film, however,
is that the director aims for immediacy rather than distance. Heavy
use of close-ups and a restlessly moving camera consistently evoke a
sense of "now," which lends the regretfulness and nostalgia of the film's
later sequences a great deal of power. This technique is displayed most
splendidly in one of the film's tours de force, a long ballroom scene
early on that is a marvel of hypnotic camerawork and choreography, achieving
the significance one associates with a life's "deciding moment."
Berling is very fine - he combines sensitivity with a
certain reserve, which is just what was required to play a character
in which love and ambition are vying for control. Béart's carefully
controlled performance is among her best: Pauline is an independent
spirit, but the actress lets us discover this in subtle ways instead
of trying to reveal it all at once. She's a bit less convincing playing
an older woman in the film's later sections - the difference in emotional
pitch seems a stretch for her, and besides, no amount of makeup or gray
hair can make her look old. The supporting cast is almost uniformly
excellent, with the standouts being Olivier Perriere as Pauline's staunch
merchant uncle, and Dominique Reymond as Jean's intensely magnetic sister.
tale is an ambiguous one, insofar as there are no heroes or villains,
but only suffering humans getting by and making mistakes. Jean's decision
to head the family business changes his life forever, and over time,
with the demands of his position, he displays the same hardness towards
the lives of his working class employees that his father had. The film's
sympathies are clearly with the workers, but it has the insight to show
that the problems are integral to the system rather than based on the
malice of individuals. In the case of Jean we are shown how family and
tradition wield a greater power over him than his own conscious will.
Everything appears in the context of a wider world - the catastrophe
of World War I has an effect on the characters as undeniable as any
the end, Jean and Pauline are as far from their former selves as one
could imagine - a fact which they can discern only dimly. Les Destinées
poses the question: Is there anything more important in life than love?
With the copious evidence from these pictured lives and deaths, in this
richly realized film, we are bidden to answer truthfully.
period film from France, but with a wholly different mood and purpose,
is Murderous Maids, Jean-Pierre Denis' account of the
notorious case of the Papin sisters, live-in maids who murdered their
employer and her daughter in 1933. This is the kind of crime, apparently
motiveless, which tends to produce a great deal of fascinated speculation,
much of it nonsense. Denis and co-screenwriter Michèle Pétin
(adapting a book by Paulette Houdyer) want to present an idea of why
this might really have happened, and in the process explore painful
issues of sex, class, abusive families, and the destructive effects
of people wielding power over others.
(Sylvie Testud) is sent, along with her older sister, to a Catholic
boarding school by their mother, whose husband has abandoned the family.
The girls idealize their absent father, and the older one decides to
become a nun. The lonely Christine wants to follow her, but her mother
forbids it, intending her to become a domestic servant like herself.
Now bereft of father and sister, Christine becomes emotionally fixated
on her younger sister Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier). After losing
one job as a maid, she manages to secure a position where she and Léa
can work together. Struggling with rage, repression, and obsessive desire,
she gradually allows herself to have a sexual relationship with the
one person she adores - her sister.
strikingly expressive Testud carries the picture with her single-minded
contained fury, accompanied by flashes of surprising tenderness. She
beautifully conveys the sense of being trapped - by her servile condition,
the unwanted expectations put on her because of her gender, and the
pressures of mother, society, and morality. She seems always on the
edge of becoming completely crazy. The marvel of the performance is
that she never goes completely over the edge until it's all over, even
though we can feel the dread of her madness through the entire film.
Parmentier is very moving as Léa, with her softness and desperate
naivete. The sisters cling to one another with a fierceness born of
isolation. It is the film's virtue, and part of its deeper purpose,
that we don't see them as monsters but as confused, anguished victims.
Denis helps us to understand them without explaining them - or, rather
than merely understanding two historical persons, we come to some awareness
of the darker aspects of ourselves that could cause us to become like
them, given different circumstances.
style is very precise and austere. No musical score, no heightened dramatic
effects or camera work. Just two very vulnerable performances from the
main actresses, a lot of close-ups creating a sense of claustrophobia,
and a disturbingly matter-of-fact tone. Denis' restraint seems like
an act of respect for the suffering depicted - no mediator stands between
us and the tragedy that will not be averted. Murderous Maids
feels like the panicked attempt to shout for help in a dream, when the
mouth opens but no sound can come out - deeply, quietly horrifying.
©2002 Chris Dashiell