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Movie Review

Passions Overflow in 'Children of Century'

George Sand and Alfred de Musset's tempestuous romance makes for a bravura film by Diane Kurys.

October 04, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century became a time of turmoil that stirred the spirit of revolution in art and politics. In "Children of the Century," Diane Kurys' bravura film of the tempestuous love story of George Sand and Alfred de Musset, two of the major literary figures of their time, Kurys felicitously defines Romanticism as an expression of the postwar conflict between idealism and cynicism. Like such English Romantics as Byron, Keats and Shelley, Sand and Musset practiced what they preached: They lived lives as passionate as the poetry, plays and novels inspired by them. (Sand's subsequent romance with Chopin, however, is more familiar and the subject of various films.)

In this sumptuous, large-scale period piece, Kurys audaciously risks wearying an audience with the constantly seesawing romance of a couple who exhaust each other with the intensity of their emotions to suggest how long it takes for a red-hot love to cool down, at which point it becomes clear that the embers will never really stop glowing. What Juliette Binoche's fiery yet regal Sand discovers by the end of the film, however, justifies its demanding, nearly two hours of two people determined to live on the cutting edge of their emotions--and her discovery is just as true for those who live far more conventional lives.

It is at a June 1833 Paris salon reading, from her second novel, "Lelia," that Sand and Musset (Benoit Magimel) meet. By that time the Baroness Duvedant had forsaken her loveless marriage of nine years and moved to Paris with her two small children. She adopted the pen name George Sand and affected men's attire when making professional appearances; she also smoked cigars, in public as well as in private. In her Sand mode, she regales that Parisian salon audience with her declaration that marriage is a form of slavery and that husbands find it easier to accuse their wives of frigidity than to try to ensure that they experience sexual pleasure. Much of audience is predictably scandalized, but Musset, seven years' Sand's junior, is impressed.

They connect instantly, both intellectually and sexually, but instinctively try to back off, realizing that they could be igniting emotions that might well overpower them. Naturally, delaying tactics only fan the flames, making their succumbing to each other all the more inevitable. They are actually of radically different temperaments. For all her flair for scandal, Sand actually preferred a rural life, close to nature, while Musset was an incurable urban party animal.

Sand may have been a woman of many liaisons, but she is nonetheless a disciplined professional intent on trying to earn a living by her pen. By contrast, Musset asks an exasperated Sand, "Can't you see I need to live boldly to write well?" She does, but her idea of living boldly is to be an activist in feminist causes and to practice free love openly, while his is to live hard, spending any substantial amount of time Sand cannot devote to him by haunting casinos and brothels and indulging mightily in alcohol and opium. In essence Sand is a mature woman, aware of the possible consequences of her defiant behavior and attitudes, and one who embraces life joyously and full of laughter. Bleak and despairing by nature, Musset remains, no matter how he at times struggles to grow up, emotionally immature and epically destructive to others as well as himself.

If all this would seem a certain recipe for disaster for the lovers, it also fueled their creativity to new heights. They were honest and open to each other to such an extraordinary degree that it is actually possible to see their presence in each other's work. As for how their relationship played out, coming to a head during a stormy stay in Venice, Kurys turned to their correspondence, unavailable until the 20th century, to relate fully all its convolutions and how others involved themselves in it to both positive and negative effect. She found in it a more reliable narrative thread than their own accounts of their relationship and the various contradictory views expressed by those close to them.

By now a well-established international star with an Oscar, Binoche is the commanding presence of the film throughout and is possessed of a grave beauty that would make her the perfect subject for a likeness carved on a Victorian cameo brooch. Magimel, who resembles Sean Penn beneath a mass of curls, counterpoints the innate strength Binoche brings to Sand with a Musset who easily careens out of control. Caught in the middle is the handsome Venetian doctor Pietro Pagello (Stefano Dionisi), who saves Musset's life when he nearly dies of his excesses but also falls in love with Sand.

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