“Don’t drown,” says Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) to Henri (Mathieu Almaric), who is drowning in misery over his unsatisfying relationship with his haughty sister. Faunia assures him: “You have no family.” That’s because girlfriend Faunia is a specter from the haute-soap opera world of Arnaud Desplechin where the usual love sentiments are replaced by distrust, suspicion, negativity—all the things hipsters think are new. Faunia is an ungrateful guest at Henri’s holiday family reunion in A Christmas Tale, which is the latest pretext for director Arnaud Desplechin to wax ironic.
Why is Desplechin worshipped by the gatekeepers of contemporary film culture? The answer is annoyingly
apparent in A Christmas Tale, where Desplechin glamorizes a haute-bourgeois French family, serving up domestic banalities with more than a soupçon of intellectual loftiness. The Vuillard clan discusses medicine, religion, psychosis, racism, sex, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and, in one extended scene, works a long algebra equation on several chalkboards. It takes place at a baronial house with a large garden. It’s just bigger and better-appointed than American movies telling similar home-for-the-holiday tales.
This is not to deny Desplechin’s filmmaking efforts. He’s all about le cinema; mixing devices such as puppet-show silhouettes, rear-projections, iris-framed compositions, graphics super-imposed over dissolves and photo-montages—even including a musical-medley soundtrack from classical to jazz. This movie drowns in high-tone, pseudo-avant-garde fanciness. But if you can see past it—and that’s the challenge for naïve filmgoers—the attenuated stories and flashes of nihilism, like Faunia’s deadly advice, are pretty empty.
At first, Desplechin’s fussily contrived history of the Vuillards resembles a fairy tale: Princessy Junon (the ever-imperious Catherine Deneuve) marries the frog-like Abel (rotund, wide-eyed Jean-Paul Roussillon). Desplechin tracks the death of the Vuillard’s sickly first child (via the above-described narrative tricks which recall Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie but without the capricious sense of fun). Then comes the quick, disheartened addition of three more children whom Desplechin introduces as adults: the dishonest banker Henri, playwright Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), and family mascot Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) whose life is charmed. All smart, good-looking and articulate, yet the Vuillards yet seem cursed—by the specters of death (when Junon is diagnosed as needing a bone marrow transplant) and by Desplechin’s pomposity. Instead of dramatizing a straight-forward, stressful reunion, Desplechin orbits around the relationships film-school-style: characters read letters addressing the audience or offer interior monologues, highlighting overwrought discord and overabundant magnanimity. This makes the movie long, but not profound.
Exceedingly art-conscious, Desplechin does tireless visual experimentation. He rejects conventional narrative economy, yet he also lacks grandeur. Today’s film geeks misperceive his specious “innovations” as an advance over the 1960s New Wave. Fact is, Desplechin has resurrected the old Tradition of Quality, updating exactly the sort of dry, bourgeois sex dramas the New Wave repudiated. When Faunia depresses Henri, or Junon teases him with motherly disdain, or Ivan gallantly permits his wife (Chiara Mastroianni) to requite her affair with his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), the radical acts only superficially address modern anxiety. At heart it’s all mawkish.
A Christmas Tale isn’t repugnant, just regressive. The modern family film has moved beyond this Gallic update of I Remember Mama. (Desplechin peddles the class and intellectual superiority of European art-movie chic that Woody Allen envied in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and attempted to rip-off in Hannah and Her Sisters). My own hopes sank from the opening scene of Père Vuillard tending his first child’s grave in a vast cemetery. It couldn’t match that astonishing cemetery sequence in Patrice Chereau’s domestic-social masterpiece Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train where an extended family illustrated the problems of the modern world. More recently, Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone specifically addressed the impact of social change on contemporary American family habit. (Bezucha used a Christmastime TV broadcast of Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis to measure the depths of modern nostalgia; Desplechin’s TV clips of The Ten Commandments, Funny Face and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a mere conceit.)
Already this year, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, André Téchiné’s The Witnesses and Marcos Siega’s Chaos Theory offered more aesthetically adventurous insights into complicated family relations. By the time Desplechin finally works past Faunia’s hip cynicism—emphasizing the creature comforts of typically French progressives—it’s as if he’s been looking at Eugene O’Neill’s conflicted family dramas from the idiot’s end of a telescope.
A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin, at IFC Center, Running Time: 150 min.
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