Over 15 years French writer-director Olivier Assayas has made an impressive series of intimate films exploring eternal themes of love and betrayal, life and death. They often take place in lower-end apartments inhabited by people living on the edge or in an otherwise marginal existence.
None of Assayas' work surfaced outside institutional film series and festivals until the theatrical release in 1997 of "Irma Vep," an unexpected and amusing blast at contemporary French filmmaking that starred Hong Kong's lovely and versatile Maggie Cheung, playing herself as an actress trapped in a calamity-besieged production based on Louis Feuillade's 1915 serial "Les Vampires."
Assayas, who is now married to Cheung, has made another radical departure with "Les Destinees," bringing his mastery of complex intimate relationships to bear upon a dynastic saga spanning the first three decades of the 20th century in an eminent Limoges china-manufacturing family.
It is based on a novel by Jacques Chardonne, who was inspired by events in his mother's family, the famous Havilands, and his father's family, who were cognac merchants; both families were Protestant. The film stars Charles Berling as Jean Barnery, who for years resists his destiny as the head of the family porcelain factory; Emmanuelle Beart as his devoted second wife; and Isabelle Huppert as his unjustly discarded first wife.
A thin, boyish-looking man of 47, Assayas, who speaks English with lively ease, sat down for an interview in his West Hollywood hotel during a brief stay earlier this year. Since Assayas' late father was a screenwriter who began as an assistant to Max Ophuls and G.W. Pabst, Assayas grew up among film people. His mother designs fashion accessories.
"It seems like I've wanted to make this movie forever," said Assayas. "Writing and directing to me is the same thing. At some point I had been making three movies in a row, all of them about my knowledge of my generation. I just didn't want to be typecast, and one way of opening myself up was to adapt something by a writer I've always admired."
It was not an easy process.
"When finally we got the rights to the novel in 1995 I just realized this was a huge thing. This was going to be very complicated and swallow up a lot of my time, so I wrote the screenplay with my friend Jacques Fieschi, who I've known for ages and is the writer for 'A Heart in Winter,' one of the better late Claude Sautet films."
After six months of working together he and Fieschi had to stop for a while because the film became too expensive and complicated to make. Producer Bruno Pesery "was scared by the length of the film, the whole thing was just too complicated," Assayas said. "But gradually the producer who couldn't make it at the time fell in love with the idea and felt it would be a good movie."
In their quest for authenticity, Assayas and Fieschi studied materials Chardonne used himself. They visited "Limoges and Charente, all those southwest of France areas, and we met people who were part of the family of Jacques Chardonne."
That Chardonne "was inspired by real-life people ... was the most exciting part of it," Assayas said. "He kind of combined a few characters to make up some of the people. But the ... places, the story, the whole industrial background was part of his blood."
While having the film's central character start out as a minister is fictional, Assayas explained, the love story between the minister and his second wife is drawn from Chardonne's marriage. "He's bringing in the religious element to bring some kind of cohesiveness to the whole thing. Obviously the Protestant element is hugely important because those people are a minority in France, but they are industrialists and also the reason why they've been selling their products to the Protestant world."
As well as the language and the characters, the look of a period film is critical, and Assayas early on started working with production designer Katia Wyszkop.
"When you're dealing with re-creating the past I think that to me the issue is, How can I make the past feel like the present? How can I re-create this thing so that we don't look down on these people and we don't look at the people who have values so far from our own and somehow function. You have to find the path to create the obviousness of how this sort of world and society functions, and you can only do it by being so incredibly precise and really careful with every single detail and never try to superimpose ... mentalities of today.
"To me it was so important to be incredibly accurate in re-creating a book that was based on documented information. We used so many pictures of the Haviland factory," Assayas said. "They gave us so many pictures for documentation, we were very lucky in that sense, and the factory scenes are, let me see, 1910 or 1913, the year that the Havilands had every single workshop photographed."