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Present Tense: Arnaud Desplechinís
A Christmas Tale: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(IFC Films)


Friday, November 14, 2008

A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

Given his cornucopia of characters fighting wars on three fronts, his whiplash tonal switchbacks, his jazzlike aesthetic of chance, how is it that Arnaud Desplechin is only now coming home for the holidays? A Christmas Tale is a family affair or seven, as the brood of queenly Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and froggy, frisky, philosophical patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) converge in the northern city of Roubaix (Desplechin’s real-life hometown): playwright Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), introduced declaring, “I’m sterile,” her road-weary husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) and rough-patchy son Paul (Emile Berling); banished Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and earthy paramour Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos); peacemaker baby Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), troublemaker wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and their darndest rugrats; in-house outsider cousin and painter Simon (Laurent Capelluto); and various surrogate family members.

The ghosts of three untimely deaths in the family are less haunting than refereeing this free-for-all: one terminal illness and (at least) two mental ones, a round of blood tests, two shocking letters, one buried secret, one infidelity, one fistfight, two attempted escapes, a relapse and a collapse (not the same person), declarations of love, declarations of hate. Every time one of the characters reached for a drink — and they drink almost as much as they smoke, and they never stop smoking, any of them, not even the sick one — as I say, any time anybody reached for a drink, I felt a powerful thirst.

Making its stateside debut at the same New York Film Festival as Summer Hours, Christmas Tale is like Olivier Assayas’s film a bourgeois mulligatawny, all flyaway familiarity and alluded-to past. The movies even share a cinematographer, Eric Gautier — who seems an appendage of Desplechin’s roving mind, following people and things and food, making intuitive choices of framing and focus.

Really, though, the several days of Christmas gift-wrap enough stuff for all of Summer Hours, Late August, Early September, too. In its hyperbolized sense of family as “myth” (to quote from Henri’s letter to Elizabeth) A Christmas Tale is more-more-more like Patrice Chereau’s unfairly neglected Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, down to the gut-grabbing music cues and attuned cinematography from, yes, Gautier again.

A Desplechin movie, like life, is a collaborative enterprise, and so along with Gautier, and frequent cowriter Emmanuel Bourdieu, credit’s due to his editor, Laurence Briaud, who in interviews the director has credited with helping him find the best parts of varied performances, and “creating this sort of free, jazz space.” Never knowing where the next shot might come from is how Desplechin — whose production company is called Why Not Productions — can use a cut-out puppet show or direct address for exposition, or punctuate a scene with iris effects, freeze-frames, split-screens, deadpan long shots or melodramatic high-angles, black-and-white stills (his family, all actors, have grown up on camera, making for an ample photo album). The filmmaking is a state of flux; so are the lives. After the full two-and-a-half-hours, the film is open-ended (the second half of Henri’s myth quote: “and I don’t know what myth it is”), coming down to a coin toss still covered on a wrist, or a couple circling each other, invoking their past to try and jump-start a suddenly more uncertain future.

In a 1986 interview published earlier this year in The Paris Review, the late Leonard Michaels said:

“[L]ife is never apprehended with such fullness, and such consistency of feeling over a long period of time, as you typically find in novels…I’ve never met anyone…who exhibited a novelistic consistency. Usually they can't remember where they were or what they did last week. They often don't even look the same from day to day. Some change so much from moment to moment, they seem like two or three people at once.”

American moviegoers are raised to take consistency of character for granted: changing minds, ambivalent feelings or self-contradicting behavior may dot our social matrix, but they’re among the (many) things we talk about when we talk about movies being “difficult.” A Christmas Tale comes to us — complete with previews trimming the thicket of repartee down to a few brisk back-and-forths — easily identifiable as a family holiday movie; will its outward familiarity make Desplechin’s heady brew more accessible, or will its wooliness make Desplechin’s take on genre seem irritating (as many found the period coming-of-stage Esther Kahn)?

The former seems likelier, and not just because Kings and Queen has primed the pump: flux is here manifested primarily as a sense of play. Desplechin has spoken, in interviews, of the energizing potential of playing happy scenes sad or vice versa — as has Catherine Deneuve, who here gets off some disparaging remarks about the character played by her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. Characters are granted the freedom of their own likes and dislikes free of expectation (the family that hates together stays together?). No Baumbach-style savagery here: Desplechin views filterlessness as a state of nature. (Grandpa, to his bathing grandsons: “I like my women very young.”) Performance is a be-in, from willowy, steely Consigny to snorty sexy Devos to Amalric, who deserves his own sentence. Desplechin’s frequent muse, Amalric is perhaps the director’s alter ego here, his wild moods swinging from curbside faceplants to unfeigned religious yearning, from toasting mother and sister as “cunt-captain” and “cunt-lieutenant” to a detoxifying, cool-uncle jog with troubled Paul.

There’s curiosity to Desplechin’s mad method, too, as he takes time to watch other movies, underline passages from favorite writers, browse all sections of the record store, and bone up on his science (have you ever wondered how a marrow transplant works?) and math (an actuarial calculus session, complete with equation-scribbled chalkboard). Riffy and referential, he’s the most footnotable director this side of Todd Haynes (see Dennis Lim’s recent New York Times profile for a cheat sheet).

A Christmas Tale
is a movie to please the recently deceased literary critic John Leonard, whose love for the infinite thingness of books manifested itself in torrential onslaughts of lists, so that to understand a work was to first drown in nouns. He once said, upon receiving some or other lifetime achievement award, “From these writers, for almost 50 years, I have received narrative, witness, companionship, sanctuary, shock and steely strangeness; good advice, bad news, deep chords, hurtful discrepancy and amazing grace.” From A Christmas Tale, gifts galore: New Wave-style Hitchcock larceny and an annual TV broadcast of The Ten Commandments, readings from Emerson and Nietzsche, DJ sets and plays within plays, abstract expressionism, true confessions, psychoanalysis, roving cameras and wandering eyes, breakfast in bed and a secret stash, ghost dogs, pyrotechnics, snapshots, postcards, portraits, montages and tracking shots and dissolves, flashbacks and fast-forwards, after-hours shenanigans and midnight mass, family ties wrapped like helixes.

A Christmas Tale opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and in Chicago next Friday at the Music Box Theatre



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