Children of the Century is the very model of a modern coffee-table film. It contains all the necessary ingredients: a light literary sheen; seemingly unpredictable “bohemian” characters including a strong-willed, beautiful woman; sumptuous decor; splendiferous costumes; and the biggie — doomed romance. It’s also in French, but that doesn’t matter much. The main language spoken here is Picturesque.
Director Diane Kurys, who helped Françoise Olivier Rousseau and Murray Head with the scenario and dialogue, throws herself into the reasonably well-known story of convention-defying, gender-bending 19th-century French novelist George Sand (played by Juliette Binoche) and her tempestuous, on-again-off-again love affair with the self-destructive poet and playwright Alfred de Musset (Benoît Magimel) as if it were the defining moment of the Romantic period. But there’s been too much competition for that title over the years, and Children of the Century somehow misses the poetry of the situation. Its thrills, small ones, are mostly on the surface. This movie will never make anyone cry, except perhaps its financial backers.
George Sand, the one with the cigar and men’s clothes, is introduced to us one evening in a fashionable Parisian literary salon, where she gives a reading and suffers the public humiliation of being insulted by a stuffy old critic. Score one for George. Binoche, the reigning queen of serious-budget French drama, plays Sand with the same vague air of discomfort she used in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, as if she’s got an itch in her soul she just can’t scratch. Binoche knows how to indicate spiritual frustration, but the enigmatic figure of Sand, an artist torn between the professional rebelliousness of her career and her need for spontaneous, uncomplicated love, is a bit of a reach for her. She makes do with lots of nice outfits.
At that same soiree Sand meets Alfred de Musset, a roguish man about town, and her junior by a few years. De Musset is the sort of guy who pins his insolent brother’s hand to the dinner table with a fork (and then licks off the blood) and spends his leisure time smoking opium and boffing poules de luxe. Actor Magimel bears an amazing resemblance to Sean Penn, which is a help for American audiences. Once we see that, we know we don’t need to pay much attention to him because we know what he’s going to do. It saves time, and we can relax and admire the nice camera work and expensive scenery.
George and Alfred’s amour fou proceeds along familiar lines. After he moves in with her and they spend an afternoon horseback-riding through sun-dappled woods accompanied by rippling piano music, the giddy couple takes a trip to Italy. All the Romantics adored Italy. It’s where Keats went swimming and where de Musset gets mugged, five minutes after he lands in Venice. Sand decorates Venice with a succession of beautiful gowns, falls ill, and is saved by a handsome Italian doctor (Stefano Dionisi). Meanwhile de Musset watches grand opera from the “sex box,” gets drunk and falls off a scaffolding in a church, gets himself fished out of canals, etc. She is shown actually taking the time to write; him, not bloody likely. We get the feeling she’s a genuine Romantic while he’s a coaster in mauve gloves. For most of the film, she runs and he chases.
One of Monty Python’s funniest sketches showed a distinguished group of 19th-century creative types — James McNeill Whistler, George Bernard Shaw, et al. — playing a vicious verbal game at a party in the presence of the king of England. One of the artists would accuse another of saying something insulting about the king (“Your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss”), leaving the befuddled victim to explain it (“I only meant that your wisdom shines forth like a shaft of gold when all about is darkness”). That brilliant bit of learned irreverence came to mind while slogging through the deadly waters of Children of the Century. A roster of famous old white folks from college Western Civ classes parades through the film — Franz Liszt, Sainte-Beuve, Eugène Delacroix — but Kurys suppresses her delight, if there is any, with this age of idealistic ferment in favor of a love story between two people who don’t seem to really enjoy being with each other, except for that one time they stayed up all night reading and getting stoned.
Extravagant times call for extravagant characterizations. Actor Magimel gets up on furniture and smashes pots, and hurls himself to the pavement in a rainstorm, but Binoche’s Sand seems too dignified for all that. At one point, fed up with de Musset’s whoring, Sand opens her robe to him in defiance, but we don’t see what he sees. The camera shot is from behind her. Binoche is a big star; we’re not going to see her nude. Maybe earlier in her career, but not now. Compare that prim George Sand to Judy Davis’ cigar-chomper in James Lapine’s Impromptu, who shoots a horse and throws herself at Hugh Grant’s Frédéric Chopin. But don’t stop there. Filmmakers from George Cukor (Camille, with Garbo as the tragic consumptive) to bawdy Ken Russell (Lisztomania, with Imogen Claire as Sand; and the nutty Byron-Shelley hallucinations of Gothic) tackled the groundbreaking mid-19th-century European artistic scene with more abandon.
Once upon a time, Diane Kurys took a more infectious delight in her work. For her portraits of women swimming upstream against the current (Peppermint Soda, Entre Nous, C’est la Vie), she deliberately chose some of France’s most stressful historical periods, then pounced on them with ironic glee. Children of the Century doesn’t pack much irony other than the obvious one, that Sand threw away the only man who ever really loved her. Maybe that’s enough after all. But by the time Sand comes to that realization we’re ready to seize on anything — droll little performances such as Pascal Ternisien’s Boucoiran, the gossipy chatter of Le Tout-Paris, anything — to flesh out the pallid passion. De Musset may be a hothead and Sand may be stately, but we’re never convinced that this adds up to the love story of the century. It seems more like a headache that won’t go away. The free-spirited Romantics behaved shockingly as a reaction to the bourgeoisie. For all its transparent outrageousness, filmmaker Kurys’ tribute to those free spirits is an entertainment for squares.