Friday, November 14, 2008

A CHRISTMAS TALE: Desplechin's Move to Mainstream (French arthouse mainstream, more like)

The closest-to-conventional of any of writer/director Arnaud Desplechin's films I’ve so far seen, A CHRISTMAS TALE (Un conte de Noël) should easily please fans of this perverse-in-the-French-manner filmmaker (philosophical, quizzical, piling on family dysfunction to the point at which it becomes a kind of functionality), while bringing some new converts into the fold. His film opens in limited release (New York City and Los Angeles, today) via IFC.

My telling you upfront that this is a 2-1/2-hour-long movie will sound like a warning. It's not, for there wasn’t a second of screen-time during which my interest or attention flagged. Yes, this is another nutty family film (seen Rachel Getting Married?), but Desplechin has made certain his delicious cast understands its individual roles to perfection. Consequently, even though information is parsed carefully and fleetingly, we follow along and our understanding of most of these characters grows and finally blooms. (This is not true of the fascinating young boy, Paul, beautifully played by Emile Berling (son of Charles?). He remains a mystery — which is just fine, as this character, being so young, has plenty of time and room to grow.)

The title “A Christmas Tale” might lead you to expect some joyeux noël. Forget it. Or at least learn to live with the French intellectual version of Christmas cheer. By the film’s end, I was moved, charmed, surprised and emotionally heated up – but only to about the same level that those in the very odd family had managed to bring themselves. This is a seasonal story filled with cancer, adultery, family rivalries, economic woes and more dark, bizarre events. And yet: The people here are so wonderfully human (if often not so humane) that I wager there will not be an emotion displayed by any of them that defies your credence. Plus, Desplechin peppers his tale with enough humor (usually of the dark variety) to keep you smiling – or at least grimacing.

For art-house audiences, it’s likely to be the starry cast that entices, and the actors certainly do not disappoint. Catherine Deneuve (above, right) takes the matriarch role, runs with it and scores that touchdown while remaining as icy and she is real. As her husband of long standing, Jean-Paul Roussillon (above, left) is as warm as his mate is cold. His reading aloud from an old book provides one of the richest scenes in the film and gives a small but wonderful clue, I think, in solving the mystery of – not just this family, but the human condition.

Does any actor work more often -- or more interestingly -- these days than Mathieu Amalric (above, with Ms. Deneuve)? This year alone, he’s made five films, including the latest "Bond," in which he essays the villain role. Here, he’s in another of his darkly humorous modes and he creates a character as odd as he is indelible. As his current girlfriend, another Desplechin regular Emmanuelle Devos brings her goofy grace and innate intelligence to the “outsider” role. Chiara Mastroianni continues to grow in my estimation (I admit it’s taken me awhile to warm up to her) as the daughter-in-law who discovers a past family event that appears to change everything (or perhaps will just enrich it).

An actress new to me, Anne Consigny, brings a sad gravity and some sense of “normalcy” to the proceedings, while Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot and a very striking-yet-self-effacing Laurent Capelutto (above, with Ms Mastroianni) complete the roster of major cast members. I admit that some of the other senior audience members who sat near me at a recent screening were clearly not as enthralled as I with this “Christmas Tale.” Their loss: If you are a fan of French film in general, not to mention of Desplechin and his formidable cast, you will under no circumstance want to miss this one.

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