The first time we see Alfred de Musset he is making bawdy sketches in a posh bohemian salon-bordello. And this is the atmosphere that he prefers to all others: one of opulent languor. But strangely enough this great poet still lives at home with his mother, sister, and older brother, Paul. As the second son of a wealthy but eccentric family Alfred de Musset must constantly bicker with his older brother, Paul, who also is a literary figure of the day. The two have a love and hate relationship. In one moment Alfred stabs his brother Paul's hand with a fork and in another moment Paul is handing off a family heirloom to Alfred and bidding him a fond farewell as he embarks on a European tour. The film throws a lot of detail at us but we are never certain what to do with it. Its like we are given external data but we never know how to translate that into something like psychological richness or complexity. The latter is hinted at, but the film never succeeds in actually delivering it.
What this period film does well is present us with lavishly costumed literary figures in their creative milieus but what it fails to do is delve very deeply into their psyches. We understand that Alfred de Musset is one of the most gifted poets of his day but all we ever see him do is visit bordellos and throw temper tantrums when he doesn't like the way things are unfolding. This would be a portrait of an artist who as a gifted child was indulged early and often and who has learned that the way to the literary world's heart and to women's hearts is by misbehaving. Alfred de Musset indulges in women, drink, opium, and other vices. We assume that the film is saying that this is the stuff of his literature and that its his own self-destructiveness and selfishness that allows him to understand the temper of his equally tempestuous characters and the romantic age that they live in but the film never really gives us an Alfred de Musset who is strong enough to really do much psychic exploration. He seems a figure that is comfortable living on the surface of life; not one that exists to sound its depths.
As filmgoers we can understand why reckless women might be drawn to Musset's compulsive misbehaving and good looks but George Sand is not a reckless woman and we never really understand why the much more mature and thoughtful Sand is attracted to and tolerates the gambling and drinking and whoring Musset.
Juliette Binoche has played so many great characters but she seems at a loss as to how she is supposed to play George Sand. First of all she is much too feminine to actually have a chance of capturing Sand's affected "masculine" mannerisms. The actual Sand could pass for a man when dressed as one but Binoche always looks like a woman play acting (even when smoking a cigar in a three piece suit). Its in this apparel that she delivers her tracts on women's right to self-determination and, more provactively, to pleasure but she seems too soft and pretty to be a soldier on the frontlines of gender warfare. So its hard to accept Binoche's "George Sand" because its not good looks and vulnerablilty (Binoche's natural qualities) that gain George Sand her reputation but her thoughts on controversial topics that make her the scandal of the decade in the French literary salons. We never believe for one moment that Juliette Binoche is George Sand.
The film attempts to show us a complex George Sand who arrives from the country, freshly divorced and liberated from an opressive husband, with her sites set on conquering the ultra-sophisticated Parisian literary world with her views on marriage and sex. But that part of the George Sand story that is most alluring --her androgynous persona--is barely even mentioned. We are told that the name was chosen so that potential readers and critics would just think of her as a writer and not as a "woman who writes". But we are never really told if the androgyny she became so famous for was something she practiced since childhood and whether it was a result of growing up in the country or whether at some point being dissatisfied with women's roles or roles women were expected to play she decided to invent a new kind of genderless character. And we are never told just exactly how her attitudes toward gender and sexual identity affect her fiction. We often see her at her writer's table and we know that (unlike Alfred de Musset) she is a diligent worker, but we never are given any insight as to just what it is that she does on the page that is so original and that makes her a literary celebrity in France, Italy and the rest of Europe. [Maybe the filmmakers just assume that we already know. I, for one, don't really know.]
The other thing the film doesn't explain (or at least not very well) is the nature of the attraction between Alfred de Musset and George Sand. Its possible to view this film and come to the conclusion that Alfred de Musset was really not physically attracted to George Sand but rather was attracted to her imagination and her very original talent (even though we don't know exactly what that talent consists of) because the entire time that they are together Alfred de Musset never stops going to posh bordellos while George Sand stays in to write. From the beginning of the relationship George Sand is forced to play the neglected, abused, and forgiving girlfriend to Alfred de Musset's bad boy libertine. Not a very "romantic" or even a very original role and certainly not a role that we would expect a proto-feminist to willingly accept. The reality of the relationship is really never that romantic; what's romantic is how imperfect reality fires the imagination and inspires the artist to transform imperfect life into art. This is fine and interesting as a theme for a film about artists but the problem is that what we see on film is just a bad relationship between two incompatible people(and all of George Sand's and Alfred de Musset's friends and family see it as a bad relationship as well). The film fails to dramatise what really interests these two (their own writing) and as result we are left in the dark most of the time as to what draws them toward one another. What we can see is that each artist seems to be oblivious to the other artists reality and prefers their own romantic notions of the other (thus when it comes time to publishing their accounts of the relationship each writes a very different version of what really happened). Both artists come off as self-involved. And we viewers are entertained only by the irony of the situation -- the further they are apart the more beautifully they seem to get along.
I think the film will leave a lot of viewers disappointed because it promises to be a love story but its ultimately pretty pathetic as a love story. Both creative artists prefer their own fictions to anything in reality and so the story is really an examination of how these two creative artists are more intent on avoiding each other than in being together. If that interests you then this film may prove to be a more satisfying experience for you than it was for me.
If romanticism seems more distant to us than any other literary period or aesthetic its perhaps because we no longer elevate and privilege art above life, or valorize feeling as if it were a religion. I think an interesting film to view along with this one might be Patrice Leconte's Widow of Saint-Pierre, a film that really delves into a side of romanticism that does still exert a strong appeal ( the characters in the Leconte film, played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteil, are wayward and fiercely independent and they believe in a higher and more inspired kind of life and justice than mundane reality dictates and allows).
Children of the Century suggests that romantic artists put art above all else; Widow of Saint-Pierre suggests that romantic spirits put life above all else.