Arnaud Desplechin makes movies that play like epic novels built out into live-sized pop-up books. Virtually Cubist in their multi-faceted narrative complexity, they cast such a spell that they’re almost interactive. When you watch a Desplechin film, you can smell perfume and feel bass shaking a room, and you feel the burden of each character’s long-simmering loves and resentments as if they were your own. Beyond surround sound, it’s surround space, surround time, surround life.
A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel), Desplechin’s latest, is a darkly comic dysfunctional family fairy tale, more Meet Me In Saint Louis than The Royal Tenenbaums, with a healthy dose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in. With its whimsies and excesses playing out under the oddly liberating spectre of expected death, the whole thing is infused with a fin de siecle sensibility. While ailing matriarch is Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) infuriatingly matter-of-fact regarding what may be her own last holiday (she explains the seriousness of her condition to her husband in their warmly-lit budoir, backed by the strains of cafe jazz), her grown-up kids reflexively take the reminder of the ticking clock as an opportunity for boozy, reckless revelry, as an excuse to fight and to stop fighting repressed desires. Weird, warm, gleefully funny and unavoidably heartrending, this grand tale of a family reunited by mortality is, in it’s most impressive trick, not a bit morose. To borrow a line from Desplechin himself, speaking after a screening at the New York Film Festival, the Vuillards “don’t have time for melancholy”; to borrow a line from his script, “suffering is a painted backdrop” for the business of getting through the day.
Via a prologue heavy with flashback shadow puppets giving way to direct camera address, we learn that Junon and husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) lost a child to cancer forty years earlier when a bone marrow donor couldn’t be found; at the beginning of the story’s present day, Junon learns she’ll die without the same procedure. And so her adult children and their own lovers and kids are asked to get their marrow tested and then come home to Roubaix. There’s humorless oldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a genius playwright; pretty boy Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who arrives with wife Sylvia and two young sons in tow; and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the irresistibly charismatic bad seed middle child who Elizabeth “banished” five years earlier under mysterious circumstances. Also on hand for this holiday steeped in wine and old fights: Cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), whose life-long crush on Sylvia will require dealing with; Paul (Emile Berling), Elizabeth’s troubled teenage son who may or may not have some sort of psychic sensitivity; and Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Henri’s new, “bombshell” Jewish girlfriend, who swallows the rowdy familial scene with a sly smile and bespectacled outsider eyes.
There are layers of in-joke here for the initiated, both snarky and rather sweet. Junon admits that her least favorite houseguest is Sylvia, the motherly but secretly restless wife of Junon’s youngest son Ivan; Sylvia is played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter. In Desplechin’s last film, Kings and Queen, Devos played the ex-wife of Amalric’s Ismael Vuillard. Although Desplechin insists that Ismael is no relation to these Vuillards, A Christmas Tale reunites Devos and Amalric as an oil and water romantic unit, as if giving their doomed lovers from Kings the last chance that narrative logic wouldn’t previously let them have. Devos is a sideline character in Christmas, but an important one: her unfathomably calm tolerance of Henri’s uncontrollable impulse for destruction is an emblem of Desplechin’s unique humanism. One doesn’t come to care for a creature of chaos like Henri in spite of their warts and flaws, but because of them.
(It’s worth noting that Amalric is so compelling here that it’s hard to find words that can do the experience of watching him justice, but to even say that is to state something painfully obvious –– I’m not sure there’s any more fun to found in international cinema right at this moment than an Amalric performance in a Desplechin film.)
Desplechin’s pleasure-desperate heroes (often embodied by Amalric) make bad, impulsive decisions, and watching them can touch off a kind of gleeful voyeurism, as if to exclaim, “How can they get away with that?!?” We react this way, probably, because we’re so used to people in movies letting their id take over only to run up against near-instantaneous punishment; we think it’s normal to see adults treated like children when they behave like adults. But in real life, we torture ourselves more often (and more intensely, and more effectively) than we suffer recrimination at the hands of the people we anger or disappoint, and the cycle of self-pity/self-realization/self-flagellation is a long one.
In other words, we get away with it until we don’t, and here Desplechin is cheifly concerned with the giddy high of being In It, with consequences left for sorting out on a longer timeline than the film has in mind. And why not? The Vuillards are a family united by an impending mortality, united in irrationality, passion, casually crippling depression, self-medication. They’re a family where the most sedate member, the fixer, visits his adolescent nephew in a mental ward with booze and smokes in tow. They’re sequestered together in the enchanted space of a slightly crumbly, possibly haunted manse, where no one will ask them to pay for their mistakes until after the holiday. With death on the horizon, Desplechin’s imagined family are liberated to push their lives to the limit, most thrillingly in Amalric’s winking, balls-out bravado. Desplechin pledges solidarity with his chracters by rendering their story via ample, borderline whimsical formal gambles and dizzying montage. A Christmas Tale feels thoroughly like a magic hour scramble. How does he get away with it? Form follows content.