Monday, January 26, 2009

Review - A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)

"All happy families are the same; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
– Leo Tolstoy

It's not easy to summarise the events that occur in Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. Set in the small northern French town of Roubaix, the film follows a few days in the life of the Vuillard family; a particularly neurotic clan who come together when the matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with degenerative cancer. That's not the most festive of premises, you might think, and the whole film is haunted by the spectre of death from the start – a beautiful puppet-show opening explains how the Vuillard's first-born Joseph died at the age of six, before Junon and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) went on to have three more children. Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is the eldest, a playwright suffering from depression and struggling to cope with her mentally unbalanced son Paul (Emile Berling), while Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is the youngest, happily married to Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and the father of two children. The beautiful Mastroianni is Deneuve's real-life daughter, of course, so Desplechin teases us a little by injecting some animosity into this relationship. "She took my baby boy," Junon says when asked why she doesn't like Sylvia; "But you like me?" Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), the lover of the middle Vuillard child, responds; "You took the one I don't like" Junon explains.

The one she doesn't like is Henri, and he is portrayed by the mercurial Mathieu Amalric. After films in which he was immobile for much of the running time (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) or lumbered with a useless character (Quantum of Solace), it's great to see him on such vibrant form once again. Henri is the Vuillards' black sheep, and five years before the main events of A Christmas Tale begin, Elizabeth had him banished from the family. We get hints about what caused the deep sense of resentment that exists between Elizabeth and Henri, but nothing as straightforward as an explanation. Perhaps it was just one of those quarrels that has gone on so long nobody can quite recall how it started? Perhaps her current melancholic state is caused by her deep sense of guilt? Perhaps Desplechin simply didn't have time for a scene that cleared up the mystery, as he already has a dozen things going on at any one time, and he needs to juggle his huge cast of characters, all of whom are the lead in their own story. Fortunately, if any contemporary filmmaker is equipped for such a task, it's Arnaud Desplechin.

The director has spoken in interviews about the inspiration he took from a line of François Truffaut's: "Four ideas per minute". If anything, that line undersells A Christmas Tale, which is bursting with ideas, incident and feeling. Anyone who has already seen one of Desplechin's films, like Kings and Queen or My Sex Life...or How I Got Into an Argument, will know what to expect from his latest work, but newcomers may be taken aback by his restless, discursive style. He loves to fill his films with allusions to other movies – Fanny and Alexander and Vertigo, among others, are referenced here – he utilises an eclectic range of music as a counterpoint to the drama, and he employs every cinematic trick at his disposal to ensure the film is never allowed to settle into routine. Desplechin will iris in on various objects, he'll ask a character to suddenly break the fourth wall and address us directly, he'll use split screens – but instead of feeling gimmicky, these devices make the movie feel gloriously alive. One of techniques that the director utilised in Kings and Queen is reemployed here, when Elizabeth reads a letter from Henri and instead of us hearing the contents in voiceover, as is customary, we see Henri sitting in front of a plain backdrop and reciting the letter straight to camera. The effect is to imbue the scene with a more potent sense of emotion than would ever have been possible through more standard means.

The way Desplechin handles emotions throughout A Christmas Tale is fascinating. The film is deeply affecting, but never sentimental or mawkish, as all of the characters' feelings are handled in the most matter-of-fact manner. "Still don't love me?" Junon asks Henri as they share a cigarette, "I never did" he replies, to which she responds "Me neither" – there is no coldness in the exchange, just a bald statement of the way things are. None of the characters in A Christmas Tale behave in a way that's expected of them, but their actions always make sense within the context of this scenario, and their behaviour always appears to come from within their complex selves. It is a long time since I last saw a film populated by so many real characters, people you can believe in outside of the picture's framework, people with complicated depths, honest desires, and hidden secrets. The quote from Tolstoy which opened this review is apt because Desplechin's films remind me of his great works, the way he can illuminate the inner lives of a large group of individuals, and it is a gift so rare in cinema.

Helping Desplechin do that, of course, is his remarkable cast, and it would be remiss of me to overlook the extraordinary performances that A Christmas Tale contains. However, it would be equally remiss to single out members of the cast, because the film is one of the finest examples of ensemble acting that I can recall. Just look at the list of actors involved in the film, and the assurance that each actor is on prime form should be enough of a recommendation. They bring such a depth of feeling to their roles, and it is that emotional texture which makes A Christmas Tale Desplechin's most accessible and satisfying picture to date. I've seen the film twice now, and I think a picture as richly layered as this demands multiple viewings to fully get to grips with it. Second time around, I found the film even more moving and transcendent than I did initially – the amorphous narrative works in mysterious ways, seemingly going nowhere until everything comes together magically at some point – and while a further viewing of A Christmas Tale clarified some of the film's mysteries, it left the answer for others lying tantalisingly out of reach. Perhaps I'll need to be a Christmas visitor at the Vuillards' a few more times before everything crystallises, but that's no hardship, because spending more time with this remarkable family is an opportunity no lover of great cinema should pass up.