American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
'Les Destinees" is a long, attentive epic about the span of a life and the seasons of a love. It will not appeal to the impatient, but those who like long books and movies will admire the way it accumulates power and depth. It is about youthful idealism, headstrong love and fierce ambition, and is pessimistic about all of them. At the end, its hero, who has accomplished a great deal and always tried to do his duty, can only say, "Everything I've done is worthless. I was always wrong." He's wrong about that, too. The film follows Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), born into a porcelain-manufacturing family in the Limoges region of France. The ruling families here make china and Cognac, laying down their stocks, treasuring their vintages, transferring power in an orderly way from one generation to the next.
Jean steps outside the mold. He leaves the family business and becomes a Protestant minister, filled with conviction. When he learns that his wife Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) may have had affection for another, he divorces her. She is probably innocent (certainly of any physical adultery), but he has read a compromising letter and there is no room in his heart for forgiveness. So concerned is he to appear just in the eyes of the world, however, that he signs over the bulk of his fortune to Nathalie and their daughter, Aline.
In the congregation one day is Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart), just returned from study in England. She loves this stiff and proper man with an inexplicable passion, and soon they have married. He leaves the church. He grows ill, and they move to a chalet in Switzerland for his health, and there they are happy, living a simple life, alone with each other. Then Jean's father dies, and he is summoned home to take over the firm from his brother, who is incapable of running it. Jean gets the necessary takeover votes from Nathalie, who continues to think of herself as his wife. Pauline is against the move back to the factory: "This is the end of our love." Not really, but the end of the sweet and complicated part of it, because now their love must survive in the real world.
The film by Olivier Assayas, written by Jacques Fieschi from a novel by Jacques Chardonne, assumes a French audience as familiar with the traditions and politics of fine porcelain and Cognac as we are with the Detroit auto dynasties. At three hours, the film is long enough to show us how the factory works, and how the laborers, underpaid, are skilled craftsmen alert to the slightest nuance of tone and texture. Jean becomes an artist, driven by his search for colors he likens to the face of the moon, or to seawater, and he is unable to compromise quality even as he pushes for a modern factory.