Children of the Century (Les enfants du siècle), directed by Diane Kurys, is about one of the most famous and most tumultuous love affairs of all time. The participants, both French Romantics, are the dissolute, brilliant poet and dramatist Alfred de Musset and the Baroness Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, whose novels, written under the pseudonym of George Sand, influenced, among others, Dostoievski, Tolstoi and Proust. Sand’s writing is perhaps best known for its critiques of married life for women, but no less than her British contemporary, Alfred Tennyson, her work also adventurously grapples with the impact of evolutionist thought on the religious mind of humanity. For us today, she is certainly a substantial literary figure. One would scarcely guess either this or Musset’s (lesser) literary importance from the swooning confection that Kurys has concocted, in part derived from Musset’s memoir of the ill-fated affair. The script is by Kurys, François-Olivier Rousseau and Murray Head, who, in an earlier career incarnation, played the boy-toy of both Peter Finch’s and Glenda Jackson’s characters in Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971).
I suppose there is nothing wrong with the film’s sexual emphasis, especially since an amour fou, all-consuming, can throw a monkey wrench into one’s work habits and literary productivity. As it happens, though, in between his opium binges, upon which the film copiously dwells, Musset was inspired by his passion for Sand to write his most exquisite verse. To be fair, at many junctures, one lover is telling the other that he or she must be left alone to work now, but one is dubious as to how much could possibly get done, and of what depth or quality, in the midst of so much mental exhaustion and sexual distraction. Musset and Sand weren’t Yeatsian “automatic writers,” you know, and each was engaged in exceedingly hard intellectual work—work of a sort with which Kurys (Peppermint Soda, 1977; Je reste!, 2003) is likely unfamiliar.
Children of the Century, like François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (L’histoire d’Adèle H., 1975), is about obsessive love, except here it isn’t one-sided; Kurys’s lovers take turns obsessing on the other and giving one another the cold shoulder. Moreover, the Truffaut film contextualizes the obsession in a complex consideration of history and myth; Kurys gets no further than having her romance epitomize a time and place. It’s fun to watch luxuriantly costumed stars taking off their clothes, and we get to see one’s bare breasts and the other’s bare bottom in a heady atmosphere of unbridled passion. There is also pleasure to be had from the gorgeous color cinematography by Vilko Filac and from the balanced, lucid compositions that Kurys devises. On balance, though, one feels a want of depth.
Still, the passions that Kurys portrays strike real sparks, and surely this derives in part from the lusty casting: Juliette Binoche as Sand and Benoît Magimel as Musset. (Binoche gave birth to Magimel’s child in the year following the film’s completion.) These two, as they say, light up the screen and hold nothing back. Binoche, with her Mona Lisa-smile, is fascinating in her warm maturity, and her decade-younger real-life lover—Musset was six years younger than Sand—is cinema’s “It”-boy of the moment: at least if one goes by his good looks, a reincarnation of Gérard Philipe. In terms of acting ability, however, Magimel may be closer to Sean Penn. Magimel is completely different in each role he plays, but something at the core always seems to be missing. Binoche is a wee bit mysterious, but that adds to her mystique; Magimel, like Penn, is vacuous, and this detracts from the impression he makes of having some talent. Of course, he may get better, as only very recently Penn has done; he is still, after all, young. In the meantime, I remain unconvinced by the world’s highly premature canonization of him.
For the record, the Sand-Musset affair lasted a rocky two years, in the mid-1830s; but the film has Sand still obsessing over Musset at the time of his death, in 1857. By then, Sand’s even more famous love affair with someone else, Frédéric Chopin, had been over for a decade and she was now keeping company with engraver and dramatist Alexandre Manceau. Writers do move on better than the movies seem to think that they do.