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Review | A Christmas Tale

Review | A Christmas Tale

Arnaud Desplechin is singular among working directors, a filmmaker attempting to create a universe on film that accurately reflects the dizzying, associative way in which his mind understands the world. Each new film is written on top of those that came before, and the resulting body of work is less a palimpsest (although it is that, too) than a personal cinematic realization of Herman Hesse’s great novel, The Glass Bead Game:

“I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbol led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang holiness is forever being created. — Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

Desplechin’s filmmaking is a way of manifesting interconnectedness, of creating layers of meaning by drawing parallels, creating rhymes and repetitions into swirling fractals of cinematic reduction. While Desplechin himself won’t say it aloud, his vision is clear; miscarriages and nosebleeds, bloody mirrors and bloody mouths, letters and monologues, virgin births and holy ghosts, romantic love and jealous ruptures—everything in his work speaks to a personal, spiritual approach to the images he creates on the screen. Each shot is meticulously crafted, gloriously composed and edited, a result of Desplechin’s implicit understanding of the power of the cinema to overwhelm us with feeling. This is a medium with a seemingly infinite number of functioning layers (sound, editing, art direction, design, performance, mise en scène, etc.) and Desplechin has mastered each of them, plying them over time, in film after film, into a grand, unified whole.

Arnaud Desplechin

Desplechin’s unique genius is his ability to both create this whole and to render it unnecessary. Walking into one of his films requires no foreknowledge; no need to understand of what preceded this moment or what might follow. All you need is a commitment to experience the moment as it happens, to live in sympathy with the on-screen now. A Christmas Tale bears the evidence of every previous Desplechin film, but it is the immediacy of the story at hand, the fleeting moments of familial cruelty and unrequited love, that matters most. The plot is one that would make Chekov giggle; The Vuillard family, torn apart by pettiness and vanity, reunites at the family home under the cloud of tragedy. Decades earlier, parents Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) lost their eldest son, Joseph, to cancer despite trying everything possible to find or give birth to a compatible marrow donor. The three surviving children, the eldest, a moody playwright and mother named Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny), a boozy swindler of a middle child named Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who has been banished from the family by Elizabeth after she settled his professional debts, and the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), a hip-hop DJ and family man, each returns home for Christmas after hearing that Junon has been diagnosed with cancer. The family must find a bone marrow donor in order for Junon to have any chance of surviving the disease. But who, if anyone, is compatible?

While the set up may sound like a classic Christmas family melodrama, Desplechin has other ideas entirely; to call A Christmas Tale a holiday movie is like calling Moby Dick a story about fishing. Instead of personal revelation and reconciliation (Desplechin gets that out of the way in the first ten minutes or so), there is a mythopoetic structure to the story that rejects psychological analysis of the characters in favor of giving each of them a grand stage on which to trumpet the fullness of their personality. Henri’s wild, drunken mood swings and Elizabeth’s angry sense of victimization are equaled by Abel’s constant beneficence, Ivan’s forgiveness is the tender opposite of Junon’s icy spin on maternity, and each of them is more like Shakespearian royalty or an Olympian deity than anything having to do with French working-class realism. Desplechin’s structural dedication to the theatrical is the reason everything works; this is a film with a sense of scale and ambition you rarely see in modern movies, a populist classicism that yields as much or as little as each viewer requires of it.

A Christmas Tale

And what is more classical than the bloodline, the pre-genealogical idea that fate itself is passed down the family tree by the ineluctable physicality of blood? In A Christmas Tale, the old Western notion of hematological destiny is blended with 21st century medical possibility to produce a Frankenstein monster of biological anxiety and familial angst. Love or frigid disregard aside, your mother is your mother and your bone marrow’s compatibility is a small, vindictive piece of her flowering inside of you. You can banish your own brother, but you can’t stop your son from finding solace and safety in him, a connection of spirit that brings hope to an otherwise confused, frightened child. Desplechin even literalizes this contradiction in a hilarious moment of competing miracles; while Junon and the rest of the Vuillards prepare for midnight mass by huddling around a television and watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, a drunk Henri escapes from an unjust imprisonment in his bedroom by climbing out of the window, down the side of the house and into the softly falling snow. The grandiose mother and comic son united in time by the miraculous.

A Christmas Tale is as haunted by ghosts as it is enlivened by miracles and in typical Desplechin fashion, each roots the film in the fantastic; The family cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), whose own infatuation with Ivan’s lovely wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) has rendered him into a ‘ghost’ that hovers at the borders of the family, Paul Dedalus (Emile Berling), the young nephew/grandson who battles his manifest demons with an inarticulate sense of hope, and Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Henri’s Jewish lover, an outsider whose deep understanding of Henri’s need to be loved provides an external humanity for a character who otherwise might be unlovable. These characters offer the emotional counterpoint to the Vuillard’s grandiose madness. Quiet and full of feeling, Desplechin’s ghosts are haunting because they are humble and incomplete, shadows thrown by the glaring light of the main drama.

One of the great accomplishments of this film (and Desplechin’s work in general) is that, despite the myriad of formal conceits, the director is able to bind it all with a loose, improvised feeling that breathes the unexpected into what feels like the fateful inevitability of this material. The careful construction and context of every image allows the director to rely upon the particular genius of his dedicated cast of players to bring what would otherwise be missing; the messy, tempestuous power of performance to bring us as close as possible to our true feelings. Is there any director working today who inspires such dedication in actors, who receives such generosity and risk-taking from his collaborators time and time again?

A Christmas Tale

While Catherine Deneuve reasserts her regal domination of the screen and Matthieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos rightfully grab the headlines for once again expanding upon their onscreen coupling, no one is more important to this process than longtime Desplechin editor Laurence Briaud, whose brilliant work on Kings and Queen is topped here by the free-flowing use of music, cross-fades, irises and the signature jump cuts that have come to stylistically define Desplechin’s work. The spirit of collaboration pervades A Christmas Tale; Desplechin is movie-crazy enough to build a process for working that strikes an harmonious balance between the rigorous construction of meaning and the possibility of anything at all.

That possibility comes to fruition in a transcendent moment near the end of the film, when Elizabeth seeks comfort from her father and instead receives a healthy dose of Friedrich Nietzsche (of course). Instead of lingering on the pair as Abel tries to find solace in the pages of an old book, Desplechin cuts away, cross-fading between shots of various streets in the hardscrabble industrial landscape of Roubaix, the Vuillard’s (and Desplechin’s own) hometown. Nietzsche writes:

“We remain a mystery to ourselves, we fail to understand ourselves, we are bound to mistake ourselves. Of ourselves, we have no knowledge…”

… and while this may be true of the Vuillards of Roubaix, there is no better remedy for seekers of knowledge like you and me than to spend time under their collective spell, in reverie, at the cinema.

Previous Coverage
Kings and Queen Review (2004)
Kings and Queen Interview (2005): Abridged
Kings and Queen Interview (2005): Complete
Tracking A Christmas Tale (2007)
L’Aimee Review (2007)
Filmmakers On Cinema: Arnaud Desplechin (2008)
A Christmas Tale Interview (2008): Abridged
A Christmas Tale Interview (2008): Complete

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