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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Taking a bite from Arnaud Desplechin's patisserie

conte de noel_5678.jpgARNAUD DESPLECHIN’S HILARIOUS, BRAVURA, RESTLESSLY GENEROUS DARK COMEDY, A CHRISTMAS TALE, is of a piece with earlier work like the furiously engaged mega-talkathon My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument (1996) and the jaw-dropping Kings and Queen, (2005), which led me to write that “Sometimes too much is simply too much and other times, too much is bliss.” Of the same movie, critic Kent Jones wrote, “Arnaud Desplechin is a protean, mercurial, supremely gifted filmmaker in a depressingly linear and single-minded age. His generous, super-abundant films look and feel like no one else’s by contrast, almost everything else seems a little careful and self-contained.” All those words hold true still.
The French writer-director’s latest finds a splintered family coming together at Christmas because mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has fallen ill with leukemia, which had killed her eldest son. Father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) rounds up their three grown children: Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a miserable playwright married to a mathematician (Hippolyte Girardot) and a troubled teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling); Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who was banished from the family by his sister several years earlier, and the conciliatory younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who brings along Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and has two quirky sons. Family members are tested to see if they’re possible donors, leading to the family whirl, which includes Henri’s girlfriend, Faunia, played by Desplechin regular, the brilliant Emmanuelle Devos. Christmas, and family, and battle, ensue. [An extended Q&A version of our conversation will run on MCN after Thanksgiving.]
A Christmas Taleis the “home for the holidays” primal scene as primal scream: from the first moments, as we’re introduced to the characters, we realize they can be chilly and abrupt, capable of pettiness and outright cruelty. And that’s just the set-up. Individual scenes and transgressions and bouts of grief that unfold in the family home have led Desplechin to compare the house and the film to an Advent calendar, or a Joseph Cornell box, little corners filled with treats and tricks at every turn. When I suggest it’s also like a dollhouse, like a spiteful child would furiously demolish, he quickly agrees with a burst of generous laughter.
Desplechin likes to quote an observation that movies need to have four ideas each minute. “I think what Truffaut was saying was not a big philosophical concept. It could be very silly ideas. It could be small ideas. Very subtle things, which suddenly pop up in the middle of the movie. There are great directors who have deep, profound ideas for twenty minutes. I’m thinking of Tarkovsky, and I have great admiration for him but I wouldn’t be able to film that way. When Truffaut was giving this line, I think he was thinking about details, making storytelling a bit faster, a bit funnier.” Like putting a poster in the corner, or a funny hat, a piece of music coming from a car? “Yeah. Very practical things, like an odd way of answering a question. Or a surprising reaction or that everything is expressed by a gesture. Or something a character has in his pocket.”

The eight features he’s made are fraught with telling detail, from composition to décor to music to dialogue to behavior, but he’s not concerned that you can take it all in, or have to get the implications of using cut-out animation to tell bits of backstory, done after the style of American artist Kara Walker, whose own cut-out work has depicted tableaux from the violent history of slavery. Letters often play in Desplechin’s films, but the characters’ communication always seems epistolary in another way, as if communication were only possible where no silence can live. “I think the way Americans use language is fascinating,” he tells me, warming to the subject. “The comedies, of the 30s or 40s, the sheer pleasure of exchanging words. But we are, each time I like the way the character are not speaking like in natural life. The sound of it, the sound of the dialogue. I would love to be able to write dialogues which are [simply] beautiful. Which means that even if someone young sees it on TV or on DVD and let’s say that she is 12 or he is 12, would get the mood of it even if she cannot understand each word. The mood of it, or the way of acting those words, y’know, it would be just like breathing. I love when the father is reading Nietzsche lines to his daughter [in the film]. He wants to comfort her but he does not know the words. He doesn’t know what to say. So he’s picking up a book and reading the lines. Period. I love the fact that with the lines, the sounds fades, and you just have the music. And silence. After that you can have the words again, but what it means is that to listen to the words, the meaning, to listen to the music is largely enough. So perhaps, it’s because it’s close to my own way of looking at films. I am looking at the film [and] I am 12. I am not listening to all the words, I am just listening to the music of it.”
Hitchcock liked to say that audiences didn’t want a slice of life, they wanted a slice of cake. “Cake, yeah,” the 48-year-old writer-director says, breaking into his ready laugh. “Oh yeah. I certainly agree.” A Christmas Talebuilds on that, I joke, it’s an entire patisserie. His laughter is almost as gratifying as his tremendously touching rumpus of a movie. Almost. But not quite. [To be continued.]

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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.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

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

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon