Children of the Century: George Sand’s Explosive Affair

Diane Kurys’ Children of the Century , from a screenplay by François-Olivier Rousseau, Murray Head and Ms. Kurys, lends itself well to contemporary relevance in its feverish re-creation of the emotionally explosive amour fou between proto-feminist novelist George Sand, born Aurore Dupin (1804-1871), and the rebellious poet-dramatist Alfred de Musset (1810-1857). The romance lasted barely two years, and in that brief period the two lovers managed to scandalize society in both Paris and Venice, mainly due to the shamelessly whore mongering Musset’s increasingly violent outbursts of jealousy. Yet Sand’s own promiscuity is never shown onscreen.

Juliette Binoche, as Sand, is warmer and needier than Judy Davis’ Sand in James Lapine’s exhilaratingly high-spirited Impromptu (1991), which focused on Sand’s big romance with the fragile, tubercular musical genius, Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant). But as Sand, Ms. Binoche is also less amusingly playful and audacious than Ms. Davis. Sand, wearing her men’s costumes, is also featured in Charles Vidor’s soggy A Song to Remember (1945), in which Cornel Wilde’s Chopin is idealized as a Polish patriot, while Merle Oberon’s Sand is reduced to the cold bitch who refuses to come to Chopin’s bedside when he’s dying. But that was 1945, and what do you expect from a woman character who goes butch on a wartime audience? Still, Chopin doesn’t appear at all in Children of the Century , though his real-life attachment to Sand lasted 10 years, from 1838 to 1848-five times as long as the Sand-Musset liaison.

Yet what Sand and Musset lacked in longevity, they more than made up in their voluminous correspondence and the books they each wrote about their passionate time together. Musset’s recollections of his infatuation with Sand are actually entitled Confessions of a Child of the Century . “We were born,” Musset wrote, “into the silence of a world in ruins. The wars were over. Nearly all men had been killed, their honor and glory buried with them. In their wake a nation of widowed mothers stared at us with empty eyes until we grew to understand despair. Like a religion, it became our way of life: we had no expectations, barely the will to survive. I, myself, had realized that death was the only mistress worth courting, but she never once looked my way. Instead, one day, out of the mists of this desolate landscape, a remarkable woman appeared. She was the embodiment of happiness, and changed my life forever.”

Musset was 23 in 1833, when he first met Sand, who was then 29, separated from her husband, and the mother of two children, Maurice and Solange. Musset’s protective family was horrified by his association with a notorious married woman who had offended all “decent” people with her published diatribes against marriage as an enslavement of women. The France of 1833 thus seemed to strike Ms. Kurys as a reasonable replica of the equally turbulent France of 1968, the year in which Ms. Kurys stormed her own barricades. Less than a decade later, Ms. Kurys began a series of quasi-autobiographical forays into sexual and sociological criticism, first with Peppermint Soda (1977) and Cocktail Molotov (1980), then with Entre Nous (1983), A Man in Love (1987), C’est la Vie (1990), Love After Love (1992) and Six Days, Six Nights (1994). Children of the Century (2000) is her first period costume film, but it fits-perhaps too neatly-in with her previous concerns.

The reason that Children of the Century has taken two years to reach our shores may be because American distributors felt that Benoît Magimel’s Musset was too abrasive for local art-house audiences, and that there was an unequal distribution of sympathy between Ms. Binoche’s Sand, who is more victimized than victimizer, and Mr. Magimel’s too-often-out-of-control Musset. But there is another possible way to look at the Sand-Musset alliance (or misalliance). After all, they were both famous writers at the time, and though posterity has rendered a more generous judgment on Musset’s talent and creativity than on Sand’s, it is also true that Sand was more successful than Musset in turning her own persona into a work of performance art.

Their relationship was foredoomed in an almost comical fashion by the hopeless disparity in their work schedules. Whereas Sand could only do her writing at night when the children were asleep, Musset could work only a few hours in the morning. In the 19th century, this issue was probably non-negotiable, though I am not sure anything has changed that much in the ever-hellish pursuit of writing while living and sleeping with another person, especially another writer.

Fortunately, Ms. Kurys and her two leads endow Sand and Musset with enough strength and resilience to keep looking in each other’s eyes for the answer to the mystery of their incongruous union.

One of the best scenes in the film involves Sand’s ostentatious cutting of her long hair before sitting for her portrait by the philosophically articulate French painter Eugene Delacroix. Sand and Musset share an awareness that they belong to history, and they live vicariously on the printed page with more intensity than they live in so-called real life or even in what passes for high life. Ms. Kurys is tough-minded enough to spell out all the grubby financial details of bohemian life with a frankness and cynicism worthy of a Balzac or Trollope. Musset depends entirely on his family for the wherewithal to sustain his debauches with women and opium, and Sand must grind out pages every night for her publisher in order to keep the wolf from her door. Indeed, the whole network of bottom-line publishers, vicious, corrupt critics and envious literary rivals comes to life on the screen with a modern acuity. Venice itself becomes a nightmare for Sand and Musset, with its Austrian military occupiers, its unbridled criminality and its ill-disguised venality.

All in all, the world inhabited by Sand and Musset is far from idyllic. Theirs is not a great love by Hollywood standards; there is little nobility and less self-sacrifice. But neither is there lasting bitterness and self-hatred. What remains is a lucid, unsparing intelligence crowding out the great events of the moment with an intimate contemplation of two marvelously messy lives.

Chinese Cinéma Vérité

Zhang Yang’s Quitting, from a screenplay by Zhang Yang and Huo Xin, goes to extremes to establish its authenticity with a pre-credit claim: “This is a true story. The cast, including patients and staff in the mental institution, are real people portraying themselves.” Yet the director is not above using Pirandellian distancing devices, such as the conceit that the actors are performing at times on a stage in an empty theater. At other times, the actors purportedly playing themselves give cinéma verité –type interviews while looking into the camera.

Quitting tells the story of Jia Hongsheng, a professional actor who came to Beijing from a small town in Northeast China to seek his fortune. After appearing in a few violent B-pictures, he achieved a cultish reputation as “the thug idol.” We are shown a few excerpts from these movies, which Jia later disdained as unworthy vehicles for his talents. Seeking to change his type, he accepted the challenge of playing the gay protagonist in Zhang Yang’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman . It was on the set of this project that Jia started taking heroin. Gradually, he became more and more remote from his friends and colleagues until he dropped out altogether, and confined himself to his room listening to rock music-especially John Lennon’s solo albums. He was supported at first by his loyal sister, Wang Tong, and later by his father, Jia Fengsen, and his mother, Chai Xiuling (all played by themselves), who took early retirement from their provincial theater troupe to come to Beijing and help their son recover from his drug addiction.

Zhang Yang, Jia’s director for both Kiss of the Spider Woman and Quitting , plays himself as a film and stage director, assembling interviews with Jia and all those around him to fashion a play about Jia’s rise, fall and-hopefully-recovery. Jia willingly collaborated with the enterprise to get a better understanding of himself. One can imagine a film like this ending with Jia falling into an abyss from which there is no return, recovery or redemption. This is not that film. And I don’t know enough about Chinese censors to be sure that a completely downbeat tale of drug addiction could ever be made, even in the name of a cautionary realism.

Ironically, Jia and the film are most lyrically engrossing when Jia is on his way down, entertaining the growing delusion that he is John Lennon’s son. Once he starts learning to compromise with reality enough to become comparatively sane and healthy, the film becomes predictably conventional. The problem is that any addiction becomes hopelessly banal when it’s treated as a “problem” to be solved or cured or even exorcised.

As his father, mother and sister are insolently ignored and abused by Jia, we are kept on the edge of our seats wondering what new outrage he will commit. Still, there is more than educational ethnography at work here, as we witness the effect of a real cultural revolution. America, and the rest of the Western world, may have much to answer for in the disruptions caused to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. But before we succumb to fruitless self-flagellation, we should stop to realize that we, too, are victims of the most pernicious vices of our omnivorous capitalist system. Ultimately, Jia’s strenuous self-portrait is not merely lifelike; it is life itself.

Kim Hunter, 1922-2002

I was quite saddened to read of the recent death of Kim Hunter. What I didn’t know until I read Rick Lyman’s sympathetic obituary in The New York Times was that Hunter was a career casualty of the infamous Red Channels , the publication used by movie and television executives to deny employment to anyone with a slightly liberal background who had been tarred as a Red. I happened to have seen Hunter in Elia Kazan’s original stage production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire when I was in college, but I beg to differ with Mr. Lyman’s contention that her second-most-notable performance was as “Dr. Zira, the coquettish simian with a fondness for Charlton Heston in the 1968 film Planet of the Apes .” My own second choice is her haunting portrayal of June, David Niven’s wartime sweetheart in the late Michael Powell’s Stairway to Heaven (1946) . Powell confided to me shortly before his death that Hunter was his sweetheart as well during the making of the film. I had met Hunter a few years before at a party, and now I wish I had taken more time to talk to her about her career, and how much I loved that beautiful moment in Richard Brook’s Deadline USA (1952) when Hunter emerges sleepy-eyed late at night to answer Humphrey Bogart’s persistent bell-ringing.