Based on the tempestuous relationship between 19th century writers George Sand and Alfred de Musset, this is one of those sumptuous French period romances that wows us with its fine production design, introspective performances and clever nuance. And yet it also drives us nuts as it goes around in circles. It was a scandal in 1830s Paris when the separated Sand (Binoche) took up with the 6-years-younger Musset (Magimel). But it was the good kind of scandal: They were the celebrity couple of their day! Meanwhile, behind the scenes their love was so strong that it very nearly killed them–Sand’s obsessive work patterns combined with Musset’s wanton brothel-visiting and drug-taking, leading both of them to bouts of serious illness in their on-again, off-again romance.
We know it’s all doomed from the start (this is France we’re talking about!), but the story springs to life in Binoche’s eyes and Magimel’s sheer physicality. Their relationship is so believable that it’s almost scary–and it’s set beautifully into the time and place, as the action shifts from (post-revolution) Paris to (Austrian-occupied) Venice and back, probing the literary subcultures and strained society. The art direction and costumes are gorgeous and finely detailed, and Kurys’ direction is clever and insightful. Even so, it feels very, very long (and the UK release version is a half-hour shorter than the one that played elsewhere!) as these two get together, fall out, find each other again, have a massive knock-down fight, take up with others, and so on. Still, we can actually feel that this is a love for the ages, and that’s a rare thing indeed in cinema!