Dir: Olivier Assayas. France. 2000. 180 mins.

Prod Co: Arena Films. Int'l Sales: Pathe International. Prod: Bruno Pesery. Scr: Olivier Assayas, Jacques Fieschi based on the novel by Jacques Chardon. DoP: Eric Gautier. Prod des: Katia Wyszkop. Ed: Luc Barnier. Mus: Guillaume Lekeu. Main cast: Emmanuelle Beart, Charles Berling, Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Perrier, Julie Depardieu.

An exquisitely wrought literary adaptation, Les Destinees Sentimentales brings a tender regard and a painterly sensibility to evoking the bittersweet substance of a man's life. An ambitious undertaking for director Olivier Essayas, its commercial fate may hinge on the acceptance of its daunting running time and melancholy air. Domestically, the quality of the cast and prestige of the production should be rewarded with substantial returns. Internationally, those factors should also endear it to the very same audience that embraced last year's marathon Proust adaptation Le Temps Perdu.

Beginning in 1900 and passing through more than thirty years in the life of Charles Berling's Jean Barnery, the film is divided into three chapter headings - The Wife Of Jean Barnery, Pauline and The Ivory Service. First seen as a parish priest married to the stern Nathalie (Huppert), Barnery will abandon his faith, his wife and his vocation. A second marriage to Pauline (Beart) brings a blissful idyll in the Swiss mountains living a life of quiet devotion to each other and later their son Max. Unable to accept the happiness that has come to him, a restless Barnery eventually rebels against his contentment, switching his energies to the development of the family porcelain business in Limoges. War, economic adversity and the burden of personal regrets mark the passage of the years as the duo remain together yet slowly drift apart. As circumstances change once more, Jean faces the prospect of his own mortality comforted by the fact that he has known such love in his life.

Stately rather than stuffy, the film is never less than beautiful and filled with images that could easily be frozen and framed. The attention to detail lends it an extraordinary richness. Every tiny aspect of design and glazing involved in the manufacture of the porcelain or the loving care that goes into the production of cognac combines to crystallise the values and pace of a different age.

Although Huppert is relegated to the sidelines for much of the time, both Berling and Beart are more than a match for the emotional complexities of their roles. Their characters belong to an age and a class in which feelings are rarely articulated and appearances can count for everything. A spirited Beart convinces us that Pauline has the inner steel to disregard such conventions but also the resolve to stand by the man fate has chosen as her soulmate. Berling also has the ability to convey his inner turmoil through a look, a gesture or the flickers of pain that sting at his expressive eyes.

Given the calibre of their performances and the beauty of the images, it seems a fair assumption that most arthouse audiences will have the patience for such a precisely crafted and genteel epic. Never mind the width, feel the quality.