Les Destinées Sentimentales Review
With previous films like Irma Vep and Fin Août, Début Septembre (and subsequently in films as varied as demonlover and Clean), the young French director Olivier Assayas showed himself to be a unique stylist with a keen awareness of French cinema history and subject matter, but with a new approach to dramatisation that owes much to the Asian directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Les Destinées Sentimentales is the most curious and unlikely film, applying this elliptical Asian approach to the big traditional period costume drama. The effect is fascinating to say the least.
Jean Barnery (Charles Berling) is the pastor of the small Protestant community of Barbazac at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a close-knit community where rumours travel fast and scandals or indiscreet behaviour are not quickly forgiven. Jean is a respected minister however, so when he sends his wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) away following rumours of an improper relationship she has been carrying on, his congregation stick by him. He also receives the support of his uncle Philippe Pommerel, the owner of a once prosperous brandy industry, which is struggling to keep up with modern methods and tastes. Pommerel (Olivier Perrier) knows he must adapt and travels to Limoges to discuss getting financial support from Jean’s uncle Robert. However when he arrives there he finds the Barnery porcelain industry is not prospering and with Robert getting old, the industry has been willed to pass into the hands of his son Frédéric, who the family believe is incapable of successfully running it. The only person with the ability to take over and run the industry is Jean – but he is a man of religion.
Jean’s circumstances however are about to change. Following a failed reconciliation with his wife Nathalie, he seeks a divorce and resigns from his ministry. He has noted an attraction between himself and Pommerel’s niece Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), recently returned to the community after a long absence, her father having left many years ago to live in Egypt for the love of a woman. Memories are not short in Barbazec however and she is still regarded as an outsider, as is Jean Barnery now having committed one indiscretion too many. The film follows the progress of Jean Barnery and his new wife through the subsequent upheavals of the start of the century. Family business affairs bring him back to Limoges with big ambitions, but then the war breaks out and everyone’s lives are changed.
Les Destinées Sentimentales is a big epic three-hour drama of important old families, their business and romantic relationships, spanning across the early decades of the last century - a beautiful period as far as period costume drama goes, being a time of seismic changes in society. It’s a big canvas to work upon and the film does look the part, with sumptuous costume, make-up and set design, but it manages to resist the epic pretensions that this type of films can often over-ambitiously aspire to in portraying the sweep of important historical events and their impact on society. The film remains sober and restrained mainly by centring on a small section of the French community - the hard-headed, pragmatic, family focussed, business driven, emotionally aloof and austere French Protestant community who find their attitudes and ideals clashing with modern methods and the new climate of social change that is going on around the world. This has the effect of bringing the changes all the more into relief, while simultaneously dampening any melodramatic aspects that might otherwise arise.
Having chosen his subject and approach well, Assayas directs the film with similar restraint and glacial but almost anodyne perfection. Despite the epic scope and grandness of occasion, the director never lets the more dramatic historical events like the First World War impose their weight on the film. Even though both Jean and Pauline Barnery play active roles in the war, the main action takes place entirely off-screen, elliptically reducing the conflict to the before and after affect it has on the characters both financially and emotionally. Similarly important family dramas also all take place off-screen, characters having affairs, marrying and dying, most of which we only find out from passing conversations. The film only shows the effects of the intervening years, yet the impact is fully felt, and the film remains true to its purpose and title, focussing on the emotional growth of the characters and their relationship with the wider world around them.
Finally getting around to releasing the film on DVD in the UK as part of their new “Your Other Cinema” range, Pathé’s release of Les Destinées Sentimentales is presented barebones on a dual-layer DVD, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Pathé’s UK edition of Les Destinées Sentimentales is presented in non-anamorphic 2.40:1. Need I go on? Let me emphasise – this is a newly released DVD of a 2.40:1 widescreen film, released letterboxed in 4:3 format. Apart from this being simply unacceptable on a modern day DVD release – and with this kind of aspect ratio, it’s like looking at the film through a pillar-box - I find this incomprehensible, since Pathé’s French DVD edition of the film, which contains optional English subtitles, is anamorphic. Rather than sourcing Pathé’s existing French anamorphic master, it appears that they have settled for using the existing VHS master for the UK DVD. Apart from the DVD’s non-anamorphic status, which is reason enough for avoiding this edition, the transfer isn’t that good either, having all the appearances of a video master. The image is quite grainy, showing macro-blocking artefacts, ghosting and cross colouration. The image is nevertheless reasonably sharp, but edges look rather ragged. I couldn’t make my mind up about the colour tones which look absolutely perfect in some scenes, yet dull, yellowish, faded and grainy in others.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it is reasonably clear and strong, without being in any way exceptional. Again though, it’s an inferior soundtrack to the French edition which is Dolby Digital 5.1.
English subtitles, unsurprisingly for Pathé, are large and fixed on the transfer. They are also positioned below the letterboxed image entirely in the black border, making it even more unfriendly for widescreen televisions. Not that the image quality is adequate enough to be zoomed to widescreen. If you find this unacceptable - and it is - the anamorphic French release of the film contains optional English subtitles.
The only extra feature on the DVD is a 1.85:1 letterboxex Theatrical Trailer (1:41). There are none of the Deleted Scenes included on the French edition.
Despite the epic proportions of Les Destinées Sentimentales as a turn of the century costume drama, the film remains relatively as low-key in its dramatic treatment as the director’s previous film Fin Août, Début Septembre, by-passing the more melodramatic elements that would be expected in such a film. By the same token, it’s not that compelling a drama and the realisations and resolutions can appear relatively minor – but that is entirely the film’s point. Running to three hours, the film doesn’t pick up much of a pace, but it doesn’t particularly drag either. This is deliberately measured film directed with immaculate precision, delicately scripted and finely acted by an excellent cast. Pathé’s French release of Les Destinées Sentimentales is anamorphic widescreen, comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and deleted scenes and has optional English subtitles. You can buy that edition here. With that as an option and an equally good anamorphic Region 1 edition readily available, I can’t think of any reason why anyone would want to buy this substandard, fixed subtitled, non-anamorphic UK edition.