Sunday, August 7, 2011

CHILDREN OF THE CENTURY


Diane Kurys, 1999
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Magimel, Stefano Dionisi, Robin Renucci, Karin Viard

Though it may seem out of place on this blog, I occasionally review period piece dramas/biographies, many of which I am quite fond of. I've already covered one film about the love life of writer George Sand, the delightful Impromptu, but Les enfants du siecle focuses on an earlier chapter of her life, during an intense affair with French poet Alfred de Musset. The film is based on Musset's memoir, La Confession du enfant de siecle, which is his account of their relationship. Elements were also taken from Sand's later response to this, Elle et lui.

The film begins with Sand's scandalous departure from her husband and home. She brings her two children to Paris and establishes herself as a writer, despite doubts from the local literati. During a disastrous salon reading of her work, she meets the younger, womanizing poet Musset. They begin a professional friendship and start collaborating on a play. Eventually this blossoms into a romantic relationship, despite the age difference, the displeasure of Musset's family, and Musset's declaration that he could not possibly love anyone.

They take a trip to Venice to inspire their writing, which quickly turns ugly. While Sand suffers from an illness, Musset spends his time drinking and whoring. An Italian doctor, Pagello, cares for her and becomes smitten. When she recovers, Musset is bitter and spiteful anytime her attention strays from him, particularly during her daily writing sessions. To rebel, he takes a lethal dose of opium and nearly dies. Pagello helps Sand bring Musset back from the brink of death and helps lessen her grief. When he recovers, he has insane bouts of jealousy and almost kills her, driving her to stay with Pagello.

Months later, they reunite in Paris and rekindle their relationship after Sand has already rebuffed Musset many times. They have a brief happy period, which collapses under Musset's insane jealousy and his anger at Sand's betrayal with Pagello. With his family's assistance, they have a bitter parting. On the day of Musset's early death, she discovers that he never received the last few, impassioned letters she wrote to him.

Though I enjoyed the film, it is deeply flawed. There's an incredibly rich amount of history between Sand, Musset, and the explosive time period, arguably not enough to capture in one film, but it seems like writer/director Kurys doesn't even try. If you are unfamiliar with any of the historical figures involved, this is not the place to acquaint yourself with them. There is barely any explanation of Sand's fiery personality -- her habits of wearing men's clothing, smoking in public, and taking a variety of lovers, not counting her divorce and established career as a writer. Children of the Century skims over the crucial parts of what makes both of them unique, yet impossible personalities. With Musset, it is only established through inference that he is a poet. He really seems like more of a whoring, foppish drunkard with a bad temper. And this is the real problem of the film -- it is very difficult to understand the mutual attraction between Sand and Musset.

Something else that disappointed me is the strangely weak portrayal of Sand. She spends most of her time wearing a dress, looking lovely and writing seriously at her desk. The rest of the film she just seems victimized and abused, which is certainly out of character with the historical Sand. With that said, I hate to admit that the film is somewhat marred by Binoche's feminine, beautiful presence. She's an amazing actress and is fully able to capture the depth of emotion necessary, but Sand should be fiery, masculine, and more striking than beautiful.

The real reason to see this film is Magimel (The Piano Teacher). He's perfect as Musset and is a living, breathing reminder of the instability of artistic genius. Children of the Century also succeeds at capturing the longing and unattainability of passionate love. With that said, it is not a particularly deep film and is heavy on the melodrama, light on depth. It is, however, beautiful and benefits from some excellent cinematography by Vilko Filac (a regular Kusturica collaborator). To great effect, it was shot on location in Paris, Nohant (Sand's ancestral home in the French countryside), and Venice, frequently using the rooms that Sand and Musset actually visited. Check it out if you're in the mood for an intense costume drama/period piece. There's a single disc DVD from Koch Lorber.

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