Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, one of the year’s best, opens this Friday in limited release. While Desplechin was in town on the occasion of the film’s U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival, Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes had a chance to sit down and talk with the filmmaker.
Reverse Shot: The first line of A Christmas Tale is “My son is dead.” Did you always know you were going to start that way, and with that tone?
Arnaud Desplechin: Yes. Actually, that was the beginning of the writing process for this film. Usually what happens when I begin to make a film is I have all these bits of text and dialogue that I’ve been collecting. And I usually try to begin the film with something that I don’t understand. And here I had a lot of bits of text by Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of them came from the diary that he wrote when his own son died and then also something that he wrote 20 years after the death of his son. It had a real poetic power to it. Yet because it was philosophy I didn’t understand it. But I wondered what an actor could make of it. He has this very strange line where he says, “My son detached himself from me the way a leaf detaches itself from a tree,” and I wanted to know the story that would make a father say something like that. What is behind it? And what story can I invent? So when you see the opening scene with the father you’ll want to know what it was that caused him to say this. See, I’m not able to understand it. The only gift that perhaps I could have is to sense that it’s good material for an actor. I’m able to play it—I’m not able to understand it. That’s my way of understanding—to play.
And earlier, Michael Koresky’s review:
Everything’s at the threshold in A Christmas Tale. Holiday time, transition, reunion, naturally, but also disease and surgery, grudge and reconciliation, degeneration and regeneration. It’s all come to a head, and Arnaud Desplechin’s certainly proven himself in recent years the director to handle such an overflow—of information and joy and panic. Of course this isn’t The Family Stone territory: added to this heady stew is a surfeit of Desplechin’s jingle-jangles—jazz segueing to hip-hop and classical music; Funny Face and The Ten Commandments; personal letters read aloud directly to the camera; superimpositions and dissolving collages; decidedly French political incorrectness and vulgarities; intimations of noir, of melodrama, of mystery. In other words, this is Desplechin’s Christmas family album, and you’re free to exit through the front door if you’re not feeling the spirit. Click here to read the rest.
UPDATE: Leo Goldsmith’s review of A Christmas Tale on indieWIRE:
Though it often seems the nadir of schmaltz and sentimentality, the Hollywood Christmas movie has always been a bit bipolar. From A Christmas Story to Gremlins, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to (undoubtedly) the forthcoming Four Christmases, the subgenre requires a course of dysfunction and chaos before the dessert of earnest holiday cheer is served. Mom and Dad’s best-laid plans go awry, Santa Claus gets trapped in the chimney and asphyxiates, and Arnold and Sinbad vie for the last available Turbo Man action figure—but in the end, families are reconciled and the true, noncommercial meaning of Christmas is reified.
In this way, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale is very much of a piece with this largely American subgenre, though its Gallic accent is unmistakable. Desplechin’s film begins with a funeral and ends with major oncological surgery, but its large down payments of nastiness are put toward well-earned, heartwarming reconciliations.
Mercurial, multifarious, and burgeoning with detail, A Christmas Tale builds upon the manic catharses of Desplechin’s last feature, Kings and Queen, to create a holiday movie in extremis, in which death, disease, and mental illness cozily share the table with music, religious pageantry, and romantic and familial love. Click here to read the rest.