The title translates as “sentimental destinies,” which is a suitably epic name for this meaty three-hour French romance that spans 30 turbulent years in its characters’ lives, one world war and serious economic upheaval in France’s porcelain and cognac industries. Whew! The central figure is Jean Barnery (Berling), who in 1900 is a young Presbyterian minister married to the obsessive Nathalie (Huppert). When their marriage ends, Jean struggles to find himself, renewing an acquaintance with an old friend, Pauline (Beart), who becomes the second Mrs Barnery. Over the next few decades, this joyous, loving couple struggles to reconcile the past into their personal and professional lives.
There’s a sea of supporting characters, and many of them play integral roles in the story. But this is Berling’s film, and he plays it beautifully … in that traditionally muted French style. The ageing is incredible–a remarkable blend of excellent acting, make-up and costumes as Jean goes through his personal trials, assumes control of the family’s porcelain empire, goes off to fight in the war, struggles with both modern industrialism and workers’ rights, and so on. Writer-director Assayas has managed to make a monstrously long film that’s dull but never boring. It’s very, very talky, and more than a little like a Jane Austen novel in its society-versus-happiness theme. But we’re kept intrigued by the characters and where they’re heading, and the gorgeous cinematography and production design help us submerge ourselves in their world.