By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 19, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

An epic drama that unfolds over the course of decades can duplicate the scope and the filigreed pleasure of a novel on screen. When it doesn’t work, a different sort of feeling sets in: The audience becomes aware that time isn’t so much passing as piling up. That, unfortunately, is the case with Olivier Assayas’ pictorial but oddly muffled three-hour saga of romance and capitalism, not necessarily in that order. Beginning in 1900, the film charts the tide of fortune as it preys upon an idealistic former minister (the rather obdurate lead actor Charles Berling) and his radiant, strong-willed wife (Emmanuelle Beart). The two are drawn from an idyllic domestic existence in Switzerland into running the family porcelain business, the survival of which, in a world of fraying artisanship, immerses them in a life of worldly ambition and compromise. At first, Assayas seems to be trying for a precocious modern period piece, but the movie turns out to be his homage to the Gallic ”tradition of quality,” in all its fusty squareness. C

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