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The Perils of Pauline: Emmanuelle Béart plays the power behind the throne at a troubled factory.

The Dish

'Les Destinées' charts the rise and fall of the fall of a porcelain empire

By Richard von Busack

A DANCE in Les Destinées, Olivier Assayas' drama about the end of a family empire, shows both the film and its director at their best. The ball takes place at the height of a family's prosperity. The sequence gives us light and motion; at the same time, it pinpoints a high-caste milieu in its time, 1900, and place, provincial France. The background dialogue is blurred to a murmur as the women gather in a separate room to prepare to meet the men. All issue forth unsmoothly into the ballroom. Without saying anything memorable, they greet their partners, who begin asking to have their names written on the dance cards fastened to the wrists of the ladies. As the evening progresses the dance becomes a little more scandalous: that tune from Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers--the "Can-Can" polka--plays as the ensemble forms a human chain rushing through every hallway of the mansion. The old ladies, too weak to dance, beat time with their hands.

If we're careful, we can see the subtle flirtation between two dancers. A Parisian girl, Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), stuck unhappily in the sticks with her uncle, a bland Cognac distiller, sees a Protestant minister, Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), who has just exiled his wife, Nathalie, for the mere suspicion of infidelity. Pauline and Jean will dominate the film, but the night here holds out one promise of freedom before duty and strife intrude.

Unfortunately, this peak arrives early, and there are hours to come. The life of Jean parallels that of Michael Corleone: he is forced into the Barnery family business, which he saves at the cost of almost annihilating himself. The great porcelain works at Limoges stand the center of the film, just as cheap foreign competition and labor troubles are ruining the business. Here's the relevance for you: a depiction of French industry under siege, just like today, when years of tradition count less than saving a Euro. Over the decades to come, Béart's character remains as a mostly faithful partner, being the woman behind Jean. His career becomes a search for the perfect celadon glaze, despite strikes, Paulette's brief affair and a stint as an officer in World War I.

The film has been adapted uneasily from Jacques Chardonne's multipart novel of 1936, Les Destinées Sentimentales. Even at three hours, there's a lot of cramming; the problem of not leaving favorite characters out isn't really solved by stuffing them in. Spread out over miniseries length, Assayas might have gained some of the richness he sought. The top-billed Isabelle Huppert is barely in the film: sent away at the beginning, she has only a few neurotic minutes. Her character, Nathalie, is like a French Mrs. Havisham, who takes one disappointment at the hands of her man and uses it to shape not just her life but the life of her daughter. The film is absorbing in parts but not as a whole--not The Magnificent Ambersons but The So-So Barnerys.

Les Destinées (Unrated; 180 min.), directed by Olivier Assayas, written by Assayas and Jacques Fieschi, based on the novel by Jacques Chardonne, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Emmanuelle Béart, Charles Berling and Isabelle Huppert, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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