The Red and the Black refers to the dueling impulses within Julien Sorel, the young protagonist of Stendhal’s 19th-century novel, the former for his volatile revolutionary spirit, the latter for the ecclesiastic cassock under which he tries to suppress it. Given the overreaching scope of the novel and the general lifelessness of literary adaptations, it should come as no surprise that Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s screen version, originally made for French TV, is far more adept at capturing the character’s pensive angst than his mercurial ardor. As somebody who still has not read the novel from beginning to end (guilty, your honor), I may not be able to pinpoint what has been lost in translation from one medium to another (much less start a word-versus-image debate), but the fact is that the adaptation can hardly stand on its own without leaning on Stendhal’s text. Charting the trajectory of Julien (Kim Rossi Stuart) from humble beginnings to the post-Napoleon French bourgeoisie, Verhaeghe lacks the dexterity of Olivier Assayas’s underrated period piece Les Destinées Sentimentales, to say nothing of the chops of Luchino Visconti in depicting an idealistic, rebellious young man’s tragic adaptation to the hypocritical codes of society. Except for one shot toward the end of Carole Bouquet’s Louise de Rénal smiling as she learns that the incarcerated hero has asked for her (a moment that allows us to contemplate Bouquet’s bewitching elegance some 20 years after That Obscure Object of Desire), the film remains ponderously stuck in lesser Merchant-Ivory territory. As for Stendhal, for real cinema, try Argento’s Syndrome.
The TVness of the images gets the clean, no-frills transfer it deserves, and the sound is similarly efficient and unremarkable.
Three hours plus is a high price to find out that not every European TV miniseries can reach the heights of The Best of Youth.