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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Arnaud Desplechin’s Christmas Gift to Us

Cinema is a constantly evolving organism, one that takes on new characteristics and techniques slowly but surely. If we look back at the cinema of the ’80s, there are subtle differences in how the films were framed, edited and scored. Acting styles are noticeably different from decade to decade; what was considered terrific acting in the ’40s would be deemed over-the-top or scenery-chewing today.

Once in a while, we’ll get a film that is a throwback to a bygone era and we’ll marvel at how it evokes the themes of today by using the tools of yesterday. But it is rarer still to find a motion picture that seems as if it is from a future movie world, where the style and technique is so foreign yet familiar, as if to seem both alien and wondrously comforting.

Arnaud Desplechin is a filmmaker from the future. Not only is he using all the implements in the current cinematic cupboard, but he is adding quite a few of his own. Watching his films is to encounter a sensation akin to how directors must have felt when they saw Godard’s Breathless or how actors must have felt when they watched Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire; what Desplechin is doing in the film world is nothing short of revelatory to the point of game-changing. With his last two films especially, Desplechin has laid down the gauntlet to every other great filmmaker and said, “top this.”

My colleague Kim Voynar wrote extensively recently about Desplechin’s last film, Kings and Queen, and I agree with her that it is one of the most powerful and dense films I have ever seen. To go into detail about the plot would be an exercise in futility because it would be like trying to tell a stranger everything about yourself; sure, you might get the broad strokes, but the details will be lost. To understand one of Desplechin’s films, you really just have to see it. When we’re watching one of his films, the filmmaker doesn’t simply start and stop the story for the audience’s benefit; no, these characters are living and breathing before the credits start and after they roll, we simply see an important chunk of time in their lives. These characters don’t exist for our benefit or pleasure, they just exist.

While Kings and Queen is kind of a film without a genre, Desplechin’s new film A Christmas Tale falls very neatly into a specific cinematic category: the dysfunctional family home for the holidays. But The Family Stone this is not. Instead, it’s like Ingmar Bergman directing The Royal Tenenbaums; a faintly magical, yet coolly calculating piece of celluloid that celebrates and desiccates the foibles of the modern family in a postmodern way.

A Christmas Tale is a bit more accessible than Desplechin’s other films because most of the plot strands feel so oddly familiar: the matriarch dying of cancer, the black sheep son, the bipolar grandkid, etc. The film follows a clear (not quite linear) melodramatic path that is consistently being subverted by an infusion of both brutal honesty and reality. There are characters and motivations that are never fully explained and as an audience, we are always a step behind because nobody in this family is going to stop and elaborate on things for our benefit. We are given what we are given and certain questions will have to be answered by what we can piece together.

The rough outline of the film would probably go something like this: the Vuillard family is like any other family. Seriously, that’s probably the best synopsis I can give you. Whenever we encounter someone else’s family, we never seem to be as horrified as those family members are, embarrassed by their own family’s actions; but the truth of the matter is that all families are insane in their own ways and so when we watched the Vuillard family, our sympathy can lie with each character at different times.

The underlying issues at hand in this family are thus: Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch of this clain, is dying of a rare form of cancer that requires a bone marrow transplant. There are two matches for this transplant: her bipolar grandson Paul (Emile Berling) and her middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who has been banished from the family by his older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) for reasons that are unclear. Henri and Elizabeth have not spoken in six years and their younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) tries to stay out of it. Underlying every aspect of all of their lives is the fact that the oldest child died of a rare disease when he was six and the only reason Henri was conceived was in the hope that Henri’s marrow would match the dying child’s; clearly, this was not the case. And now the entire family is under one roof in Robaix for the holidays.

The all-star cast – built from Desplechin’s repertory company of Deneuve, Emmanuelle Devos, Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, Consigny, Poupaud, Jean-Paul Roussillon and many others – gives wonderful individual performances for sure, but it’s really more like watching a terrific basketball team: each one is willing to give assists to the others and sometimes they’ll just score the basket on their own. It is hard to find a standout among the bunch because each is so terrific and each has their moment to shine.

There are larger issues at hand, but there are also smaller ones that add to the tension under the roof, including Henri bringing home the beautiful Faunia (Devos) whose “ass looks likeAngela Bassett’s” and Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Mastroianni) being despised by Junon and loved by Simon (Laurent Capelluto), a cousin who was taken in by the family. Confused yet?

Again, this is a film that needs to be seen not just so the plot makes sense but so that you can savor the interesting touches that Desplechin throws in: references to other films, characters that talk straight into camera, scenes where the screen darkens except for a little peephole so that the audience can feel like voyeurs. This is not a film that can be digested in one sitting because there is so much stuff going on with the characters in the middle of the screen and so many unspoken feelings at the edges and then there are all of the stylistic flourishes behind the camera. Desplechin’s motto is “every minute, four ideas” and that holds true in this film because it is too dense to be swallowed at once.

Arnaud Desplechin has been wowing audiences since his first film The Sentinel in 1992, but it was with his second film, My Sex Life: Or How I Got Into an Argument (1996), that he truly found his voice, which was reverent of past cinema but bold about taking it in new directions; sentimental and cynical, but more than anything, transcendent. After a fascinating misstep with the well-made, but ultimately cold Esther Kahn, Desplechin regained his form with the masterpiece Kings and Queen in 2004.

There are a lot of folks who might be turned off by the way in which Desplechin makes his films, disappointed by the way the story seems to digress from the “central” plot. But that is exactly what I love about his films, that they care more about characters than stories; that it’s not about fitting certain people into a certain story, but about how these people would behave and what story could be built around their actions and inactions. I would wager that he didn’t think to himself when mapping out this film, “I want to tell a story about this, this and this” but rather mapped out each character in a family and figured out how and why their relationships are what they are. We might not see all of the hard work that Desplechin clearly put into creating these characters and their idiosyncrasies, but we see the outcome of that work and see the shadows of those parts that were left out of the final cut.

We might not understand why exactly Elizabeth has banished Henri or if she was even justified in those actions, but we have enough information that we can create an informed opinion about it. Some might see Elizabeth as cold and heartless and a villainess for what she does to Henri, but others might see Elizabeth’s actions towards him as proof that he in fact did something to deserve it. Both seem logical at times and that is the way it works in a family; banishing someone from your family is not something that should be taken lightly and there are consequences to it, even if you can’t remember why you banished them in the first place. These are the little details that creep out of the thick morass of this family.

The other thing that might turn off some folks about Desplechin’s film, but that I find remarkably enchanting, is the way he constructs his dialogue. The characters in his films are almost always speaking to one another in an antagonistic way, trying to get a rise out of one another, but it’s never malicious; it’s almost a way of expressing affection for one another. When Henri antagonizes Elizabeth’s husband Claude by saying to Claude, “You don’t really matter anyway,” it’s interesting to note reaction of not only Claude, but the rest of the family. Claude understandably gets very upset, but the rest of the family – even Elizabeth – chuckles at this scene. What are we to ascertain from this? And the answer to that question is unknowable, but it allows for each audience member to come up with an explanation and that kind of open-ended, ambiguous action and dialogue is exactly what I love about this movie.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that Desplechin does that makes him such a terrific filmmaker. While watching his films, I find myself confused a lot of the time and wondering exactly what he is going for. When he has a mother and her son telling each other they never loved one another, for example, it is hard to figure out whether or not they are telling the truth. And when Elizabeth banishes Henri from the family, it’s difficult to discern whether or not her actions are justified. But by the end of his films, there is a catharsis – not on the screen, but in the audience, in ourselves; we feel not only moved, but sometimes hurt and bewildered. Desplechin creates that special kind of feeling in me that reminds me of when I first started to love cinema, that first high that I’ve been chasing for years and seldom get.

I see over two hundred new-release films every year and maybe five or six of them really move me, but it is rarer still to find that movie that makes me feel the way I did when I first watchedA Clockwork Orange on the floor of my room when I was 12: shocked, perplexed, sad, happy, a strange sensation in my stomach like I just got off a rollercoaster. A Christmas Taleis the best film I’ve seen so far this year, but that’s a given and that seems to me like faint praise because it’s not just a regular experience. And I can give no higher compliment toArnaud Desplechin and A Christmas Tale than to say that it made me feel like it was the first time I ever saw a movie.

– Noah Forrest
November 18, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon