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An impeccably realized but only moderately compelling saga, Les Destinees has everything you might want from an epic, except epicness. The film (whose original title is Les Destinees Sentimentales) runs almost three hours and spans more than three decades, yet musters only three essential characters: Jean Barnery and his first and second wives, Nathalie and Pauline. And although this is Irma Vep director Olivier Assayas’ longest film and his first costume drama, it is in some ways less complex than its predecessor, Late August, Early September.

Outside the United States, where his early films have rarely been seen, Assayas is known as a chronicler of adolescent discontent. Late August, Early September was the director’s farewell to youth, an intricately interwoven account of people who—though mostly under 40—are old enough to settle down, sunder longtime relationships, buy and sell real estate, and even die. Les Destinees takes another few steps away from Assayas’ earlier themes, if not all his previous techniques. The film glides into the early 20th century, alternating between documentary-style handheld camera and swooping crane shots, and skipping lightly across events with an elliptical cadence that’s surely more characteristic of Assayas than the movie’s source, a three-volume novel by Jacques Chardonne. (Never seen Chardonne’s face on a Barnes & Noble tote bag? That’s probably because his reputation slid after he was a bit too friendly with the Nazis.)

The tale opens in 1900, at a funeral on a winter day whose chill is conveyed by muted, bluish hues. We’re attending not for the person being buried but for the man presiding over the burial: Jean (Charles Berling), a Protestant pastor in the overwhelmingly Catholic town of Barbazac. He’s one of the heirs to the Barnery porcelain company, based in nearby Limoges, but he’s put crucial distance between himself and the business by taking holy vows. Now keeping his reputation spotless requires a domestic upheaval: Because Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert, looking even more dour than in The Piano Teacher) supposedly became too friendly with a local philanderer, Jean banishes her to Limoges. With her goes their young daughter, Aline, even though Jean adores her.

Nathalie’s departure is followed by the arrival of lively and newly fatherless 20-year-old Pauline (Emmanuelle Beart, whose wide eyes still evoke the ingenue parts she played in the ’80s). She’s come to live with her uncle, who produces some of the region’s other famed commodity, cognac. Jean and Pauline momentously glimpse each other at a formal dance, depicted with quick cuts and crowd-jostling close-ups in a scene that’s a cross between the society ball in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and the teen bonfire bacchanal of Assayas’ Cold Water. Soon after, Jean invites Nathalie to return, but he fails to penetrate her implacable facade and allay her inner rage. Besides, he’s in love with Pauline, a sensuous atheist. So he abandons his vocation, his marriage, and his inheritance—giving the last to Nathalie—and pursues Pauline, first to Paris and then to Switzerland.

Jean and Pauline live happily for several years in a mountain cottage and have a son, Max. Then obligation knocks on the door, for the first of several times in the movie’s second half. When his uncle dies, Jean is asked to take over the family business. He remakes himself as an entrepreneur and a ceramics innovator, a task complicated by his service in World War I—a cataclysm that Assayas handles in two quick scenes—labor unrest, and the Great Depression. The film ends not with the expected funeral but with a small triumph for Barnery porcelain and an even smaller insight for Jean. Assayas has never been one for big finishes, but his most traditional film needs a final homily that’s a little stronger than what he and co-scripter Jacques Fieschi provide here.

Les Destinees’ treatment of the Protestant ethic doesn’t seem especially timely, but the fastidiously rendered porcelain-making episodes do hit upon an apt subject: French standards of craftsmanship and the travails of globalization. Jean tries to compete with low-wage Japanese ceramics makers and risks his porcelain’s quality—as well as his marriage—with his frequent voyages to New York to increase Barnery’s U.S. market share, only to face bankruptcy when his American clientele vanishes after the 1929 stock-market crash. For a French filmmaker who’s had only one modest U.S. success, Jean’s experience might seem significant.

But films are not plates. If Les Destinees is more skillfully constructed than such Assayas movies as Cold Water, it lacks his earlier films’ ease and elation. A few subplots that might have made the proceedings less stuffy—including grown-up Aline’s lesbian romance—are hastily skimmed over, so the overall tone emulates the demeanor of the stolid, duty-bound Jean. Ironically, Les Destinees probably got a stateside release not primarily because of its craft but because its costumes, landscapes, and novelistic narrative are likely to appeal to the upscale older Americans who attend foreign-language films. The director has made an export-quality product, but one without the verve of the youth-oriented Assayas movies that no U.S. distributor expected American kids would want to see.

Julio Medem’s films are always about sex and death, but he’s really interested only in the former. Thus the scenes in which one of his heavily fated, symbolically named characters meets his or her doom are usually unconvincing. For a Medem movie to build to such a moment—as did Lovers of the Arctic Circle, his previous effort—is a, uh, fatal miscalculation. With the wildly erotic, engagingly preposterous Sex and Lucia, the Basque director has finessed this problem. Without revealing too many of the scenario’s mysteries, let’s just say that in this movie, destiny doesn’t play for keeps.

Menacing and madcap in equal measure, Medem films are not for everyone—especially not for the prudish or the literal-minded. The original Spanish title of Sex and Lucia is Lucia y el Sexo, but the English translation gets the order right. Lovely Madrid waitress Lucia (Paz Vega, who resembles a grown-up Winona Ryder) meets moody novelist Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa), and they begin an extravagantly sensual relationship, depicted in a series of explicit but unforced amorous montages. Lucia is as unguarded with her soul as she is with her body; when she meets Lorenzo, whom she knows only through his book, she announces that she is madly in love with him and wants to live with him. The other characters, however, have secrets.

When Lorenzo disappears and is presumed dead, Lucia heads for Formentera, a clothing-optional Mediterranean island that her lover often mentioned. There she meets Elena (Arctic Circle star Najwa Nimri), a chef and hostel owner who’s mourning the loss of her young daughter, and the mysterious Carlos (Daniel Freire), who unaggressively makes himself available for both women’s pleasure. A scuba diver, Carlos informs Lucia that Formentera is honeycombed by underwater caves and unconnected to the ocean floor. In other words, the island is as intricately constructed and unmoored as a Medem film.

Lucia hasn’t been on the island long when the Fates hit the Rewind button, sending the film back to Madrid to learn more about some initially unseen connections between Lucia, Lorenzo, Elena, and Carlos. It turns out that Lucia and Lorenzo’s relationship goes flat when the writer starts hanging out with Belen (Elena Anaya), the sexiest nanny in Spain, if not the entire European Union. Yet Lorenzo is interested not in Belen—or her lurid stories about life with her porn-star mother and Mom’s well-endowed lover—but in Luna, Belen’s 6-year-old charge. Lorenzo believes that the child may be his daughter, the result of an anonymous—but very romantic, of course—one-night tryst back on Formentera.

Medem’s films can be compared to those of many directors who deal in serendipity, fractured narratives, and parallel possibilities, including Nicolas Roeg, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Alain Resnais. Sex and Lucia particularly recalls the last’s Providence, with both films using the character of a writer to playfully boost the ambiguity. Some, and perhaps all, of Sex and Lucia’s events are written not by destiny but by Lorenzo. Certainty is not Medem’s thing, and he delights in new possibilities for fabrication and confusion. The film’s opening credits are typed as if on a computer screen, and it later transpires that Elena spends much time in the slippery reality of a computer chat room.

Those aren’t the only hi-tech touches. Sex and Lucia was shot—very beautifully—on digital video, a tool that’s rapidly outgrowing its quick-and-dirty origins. To documentary makers, the advantage of DV is that you can take it anywhere. That also makes it perfect for Medem, who again demonstrates his willingness to go anywhere, unbound by convention, timidity, or, for that matter, common sense.CP