Excellent recent projects from French helmer Olivier Assayas (CARLOS/'10, a multi-parter on the political-provocateur/terrorist; and the beautifully-observed family-inheritance drama SUMMER HOURS/’08) only increase the disappointment of this sweeping period piece of the early 1900s. Charles Berling ages nicely over the thirty-year time frame, but his personal conflicts as lapsed Protestant Minister; divorced dad; WWI Captain; & unwilling paterfamilias to a tradition-bound Limoges porcelain factory are far less convincing. And Assayas doesn't make things any better by trying to give this old-fashioned tale a modern feel with nervous/close-in camera work & jerky editing that only make everyone look neurotic & ill-tempered, even as he's working all too hard for that Luchino Visconti/LEOPARD mojo. (Check out the grand ball sequence, right down to the exhausted grand seigneur.) Perhaps it's the fault of the adapted novel, but too many of the plot turns come off as 'imposed on’ the characters rather than ‘lived in.’ Isabelle Huppert is her usual unsettling self as the unstable first wife while Emmanuelle Béart goes all Leslie Caron as wife #2, her pouty-lipped, strong-willed replacement. (There’s a real giggle-inducing Hollywood moment when she switches from not aging a day to instant grey-haired beauty. Calling Greer Garson.) Yet while this dreary personal drama dribbles along (almost three hours!), there’s real dramatic interest on the business side of things. Not only techniques in glazing, firing & design, but in the changing international flow of goods, with a sidebar on the brandy industry from Béart’s family. Assayas missed the real lesson from a master like Visconti; it’s not about scrupulous period detail, but about locating the drama within that scrupulous detail.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned, Visconti’s magnificent IL GATTOPARDO/THE LEOPARD/’63. Look for the latest (umpteenth) digital restoration made for the 2010 BLU-RAY release.