Houses of Mirth

Sholom Aleichem called his novel of the Yiddish theater Wandering Stars. Such were the Bursteins, shuttling between the U.S. and Israel, twins in tow, with frequent tours through the Jewish enclaves of South America. As the Yiddish stage shrank, their peregrinations expanded. The Komediant is as packed with incident, personality, and family drama as A Shtetl Wedding. Susan regards her childhood as a disaster and fled the family business as soon as she could; Michael went on to become a solo star, both in Israel and on Broadway. Goldfinger interviews them—and their tireless octogenarian mother—separately to resonant Rashomon effect.

The resilient Bursteins are always likeable, sometimes in spite of themselves. Adding to the historical pathos, the filmmakers recruit a chorus of ageless Yiddish stage veterans, including Shifra Lerer and Fyvush Finkel. At one point, the expansive Finkel illustrates a point about the Yiddish audience with an Anne Frank joke. Actually, it's a joke about the representation of Anne Frank, but—who knows?—it might be sufficient to get The Komediant denounced by Menachem Rosensaft and picketed by Dov Hikind.

Friendliest Friend of Earth (left) and big Capracornball
photo: Warner Bros.
Friendliest Friend of Earth (left) and big Capracornball


Death to Smoochy
Directed by Danny DeVito
Written by Adam Resnick
Warner Bros.

The Komediant
Directed by Arnon Goldfinger
Written by Oshra Schwartz New Yorker
Opens April 5

Les Destines
Directed by Olivier Assayas Written by Assayas and Jacques Fieschi, from the novel by Jacques Chardonne
Lincoln Plaza
Opens April 5

A more genteel family saga, Olivier Assayas's Les Destinées is an impressively coordinated enterprise that lasts three hours, manages a large cast, and covers a period of 30-odd years while successfully unfolding as a series of scenes from the life of a single character. Indeed, given the restrained force of Charles Berling's performance, the movie could almost exchange titles with The Komediant.

Adapted from a three-volume novel by Jacques Chardonne, Les Destinées is unlike anything Assayas has previously done; no less than its protagonist, it's eminently, if ambivalently, respectable. Jean (Berling), a Protestant pastor whose family operates a Limoges porcelain factory, divorces his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), because he suspects her of infidelity. Abandoning his calling, he relocates to Switzerland with a younger Protestant woman (a finely modulated Emmanuelle Béart) but cannot avoid his fate—leaving his Alpine paradise for Limoges to betray his youthful ideals and take the family business into the 20th century.

Shot by Eric Gautier, Les Destinées feasts on the dappled landscapes of the old France. For the first hour, the sun shines every day and Assayas often overexposes scenes so that his characters seem dazed by the light. The movie is naturalistically steeped in commerce (although Jean's attachment to the fine, hand-painted porcelain in the face of cheap mass-production might reflect Assayas's sense of France's anachronistic cinéma des auteurs). Assayas keeps his camera close and moving; the narrative proceeds by sudden leaps. A long, detailed ball staged early in the film ranks with the choreographed teen bacchanal in Cold Water and the claustrophobic dinner party in Irma Vep. News of the epoch-ending World War I reaches factory and garden like a natural disaster.

By the time Les Destinées reaches its graceful conclusion, most of the surviving characters can no longer remember who they once were. The movie has a quiet gravity. You may not feel the earth move when Jean drifts off, imagining himself back in the garden, but you can sense it turn.

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