Saturday, December 27, 2008
Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), the French language film by Arnaud Desplechin, is one of the most elegantly beautiful films I've seen in a long time. A portrait of the extremely dysfunctional Vuillard clan, a family at a crossroads of sorts, the movie is bolstered by the performances of Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and the fascinating Mathieu Amalric. Everything, from the music to the imagery to the performances, contribute to a sense of warmth and reality so rarely found in this usually American genre, the family reunion film, that the movie is simply one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I've had in the last couple of years. The Vuillards are a family that revel in their animosity towards each other, turning it into a gamesmanship of sorts between them. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is trying to extricate herself from the relentless negativity, but in doing so she takes the game to a new level. After dealing with the habitual irresponsibility of middle brother Henri (Amalric), she bails him out of a business deal that went bad, with the condition that he is never to be present, or even talked about, in front of her for as long as they live. This extreme measure may be a way of coping with her son Paul (Emile Berling) and his schizophrenic breakdown. Add the stress of the discovery by Junon (Deneuve), the family matriarch, that she suffers from a rare form of cancer and needs a bone marrow transfusion. The upcoming family reunion this Christmas is one that most of them are not looking forward to. Desplechin adopts a variety of techniques to communicate a great amount of backstory in what seems like a breezy 2 and 1/2 hours. At the outset of the film he uses shadow puppets to describe how the childhood death of brother Joseph may have been the inciting incident in the family's complex history of mutual loathing. This short prologue casts a mythic quality on what is a essentially a family of traditional archetypes, a fact Henri makes note of early in the film when he says (and I paraphrase) that if his life is a myth he does not know what part he is supposed to play. The director also often has his characters break the fourth wall, and discuss their inner thoughts, or read personal letters directly to the camera. Another curious device, that may not be as successful, is one in which the viewer enters a scene being shot as if through a peephole, with the lens aperture slowly opening onto the scene proper, a form of eavesdropping that literally reminds us that though we are privy to the Vuillards' secrets, this is just cinema. All of the technical aspects of the film seem to be on point. Grégoire Hetzel's music is lush and comforting, enveloping us in the familial warmth that this family deceptively seems to lack. The imagery also plays counterpoint to the events of the film. Eric Gautier's golden-toned cinematography, and the use of what looks like actual childhood photos of the actors, create a nostalgic sense of history and the indomitable spirit that this family has developed in dealing with their fair share of tragedies. The performances are uniformly excellent. Deneuve gives what could easily be her valedictory performance in film, despite still being too young to leave the screen. It is because she imbues Junon with an unspoken regret for the way she's alienated herself from her family. Still, Junon would rather let the cancer take her than deal with the family issues head-on. Mastroianni is charming as Sylvia, wife of Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the youngest brother. A mother of two, the fading beauty wonders what course her life would have taken had she chosen to marry cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), a painter, instead. Amalric's ugly Henri is a man at odds with himself, both seeking to reconnect with his loved ones, while constantly stirring things up when their dust-ups have settled. For instance, he turns out to be one of only two family members (the other is a youngster) whose bone marrow is compatible with Junon. He is happy to oblige, but still can't bring himself to call his mother by anything but her first name. The detestable little Henri is a physical embodiment of the family and their animus. A memorable image comes midway in Un conte de Noël when Elizabeth opens a present from a neighbor, a gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm. As she admires it, there is a cut to the charm spinning in the center of the film frame as the surrounding space dissolves into a snowy exterior of the family home. This central image somehow captures the ineffable feelings that arise when viewing this exquisite film, of a family that may not actually like each other much, but manage to hold deep love for each other nonetheless.