‘Eternity’ (‘Eternite’): Film Review

Eternity - Still - H - 2016
Nord-Ouest Films
An exquisitely made period piece without a plot.

A host of French stars topline this century-sweeping drama from Oscar-nominated Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Probably not the best title for a two-hour movie that drifts on and on without much purpose, Eternity (Eternite) is a powerfully stylized family fresco in search of a real story.

The first French-language effort from Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who broke out onto the scene in 1993 with the Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya, this century-spanning portrait of a wealthy Gallic clan and their many, many offspring is loaded with pretty pictures and a playlist of classical hits, but lacks any dramatic fodder beyond the basic acts of procreation and death.

Impressively shot by Hou Hsiao-Hsien regular Mark Lee Ping Bing, and starring local matinee idols Audrey Tautou, Melanie Laurent and Berenice Bejo, the film – conspicuously released in France without a major festival bow – could use its cast and good looks to land a few offshore bookings, but remains too diffuse for widespread arthouse play.

Adapted by Tran from Alice Ferney’s novel L’Elegance des veuves (The Elegance of Widows), Eternity follows an extremely attractive, well-to-do and well-dressed ménage over the course of several decades, beginning in the late 19th century and ending around the present day. With virtually no dialogue and an omnipresent voiceover (spoken by Tran’s wife, the actress Tran Nu Yen Khe), very little action is depicted onscreen despite a few events that occur over the years, in a screenplay that does a lot of showing-and telling but never provides an authentic narrative hook.

Set between a breathtaking belle-époque mansion and an impeccably decorated pair of apartments, the film begins with Valentine (Tautou), a happily married member of the bourgeoisie whose husband (Arieh Worthalter) seems to spend most of his time plucking at a guitar and siring children. Indeed, one eventually loses track of Valentine’s progeny – at one point the count seems to be as high as eight – though quantity soon becomes an issue when a few of them die of natural or other causes, leaving Valentine shattered and her other kids scarred by the fragility of existence.

But the cycle of life goes on – as repeated flashbacks, musical refrains and commentary remind us – and we soon follow Valentine’s daughter, Gabrielle (Bejo), daughter-in-law, Mathilde (Laurent), and their two spouses (Pierre Deladonchamps and Jeremie Renier, respectively) as they raise their own supersized family to the tunes of Bach, Liszt, Ravel, Beethoven and Gabriel Fauré, prancing about their estate’s magnificent gardens in slow-motion, their faces mostly filled with smiles until tragedy strikes again.

As if Zola, Flaubert or Balzac never existed, Eternity paints a sweeping portrait of French life that’s almost entirely without conflict, whether of a professional or personal order. Everyone lives comfortably and all the couples get along grandly until someone drops dead one day, while both the men and women spend so much time kissing their multiple babies, it looks like they’re all trying to run for president. (The whopping cast of children used in the production looks close to triple digits.)

Tran, who was born in Vietnam but sought refuge in France as a teenager, offers a loving ode to his host country where the constant prospect of death is ultimately outdone by the persistence of flesh and blood, with each generation replacing the next and living out the same dreams, passions and propagation. If any film comes to mind here, it’s probably Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which also uses a busy orchestral soundtrack, voiceover and non-linear montage to build an impression rather than create drama.

Impressionism is also apparent in Ping Bing’s roving widescreen imagery, which yields colorful tableaux vivants bathed in warm light and heavy filtration – to the point that the film sometimes resembles a cross between a Renoir painting and a Chanel commercial from the year 1895. The filmmaking is often splendid to behold, though not necessarily for two full hours, and Tran’s Gallic tone poem winds up suffering under the weight of its own aestheticism. It’s a beautiful flower arrangement in need of an adequate vase.

Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Pathe, Artemis Productions, France 2 Cinema, Chaocorp Cinema
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Tran Anh Hung, adapted from the novel “L’Elegance des veuves” by Alice Ferney
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bing
Production designer: Veronique Sacrez
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Mario Battistel
Casting director: Gigi Akoka
Sales: Pathe International

In French
115 minutes