[originally published November 20, 2008]
“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)
In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.
Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.
The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).
“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood â€“ the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years â€“ they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.
Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the benevolent patron as father hen and aging relic (I love the way he hikes his pants over his stomach and almost up to his armpits), is the welcoming host who embraces all and avoids conflict, but goes to his room to escape the craziness by listening to his hard bop jazz collection. Junon is much less forgiving and strangely non-maternal (it’s no wonder that Henri once pondered if he secretly was born of another mother). Henri puts up a front of indifference to Elizabeth’s arrogant banishment of him for all these years, but in fact he’s deeply hurt by it, and by the way his father Abel and younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) never challenged her. Or even asked her why. And for all the public show of strength and resilience from Elizabeth, she is really the most fragile and volatile and troubled sibling in the family and Consigny reveals that vulnerability every time she removes herself from the crowd and lets her social mask drop in the privacy of her own fears.
Everyone in this cast is magnificent. Amalric is a hustler whose true mercenary instincts are left vaguely defined (his most callous moment belongs to Elizabeth’s flashback, her proof of his evil, but her perspective is questionable at best) and who is reflexively defensive in every conversation: he anticipates the worst from everyone. He can also be the most unreadable and unpredictable, and has the ability to toss off injury like it was a hiccup. Poupaud is the happy-go-lucky little brother who still plays the role, affectionate and genially shallow as he skips over the tops of the churning tensions. Deneuve is chilly and aloof and confesses her dislikes more freely than she shows affection. Chiara Mastroianni is the dutiful daughter-in-law who can’t understand why Junon is so distant from her. Laurent Capelluto is the beloved cousin, just one of the boys who has a little perspective on the family because he keeps himself emotionally removed. And Emmanuelle Devos throws off sparks as Henri’s girlfriend, Faunia, smiling as she mixes it up with the family, holding her own in the chaos and, apparently, enjoying every minute of it.
Desplechin directs with even more restless energy and impulsive immediacy that he showed with Kings and Queen, and draws from an arsenal that recalls the work of Truffaut and Godard in the early New Wave, and like them he weaves his cinematic ideas in his narrative tapestry of perspective and memory. He isn’t out to explain as much as explore the complicated relationships between family members and the complexity of feelings behind those connections as he roams through flashbacks, detours through old secrets and clues that don’t always lead you to a solution. They don’t illuminate the why, only the layers of drama coursing through the what, and even those are subjective at best, a loaded perspective that reveals more about the narrator than the event itself.
“All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy
“The Vuillards are a strange lot,” remarks Faunia as she wades into the gene pool. “Not at all,” answers Henri. “We’re an ordinary family.” I think that Desplechin would say that they’re both right. Their dramas and traumas are very specific and detailed but the trials of being a family are the same for them as for everyone.
This is neither a farce of dysfunctional collisions nor a family drama where dredging up past sins and misunderstandings leads to teary reconciliations. It’s about the messy space inhabited by loved ones who will never know or understand everything about each other (or, for that matter, themselves) and may never overcome their own impulses (rational or irrational) and emotional reflexes. For all the prickly relations, Desplechin’s mix of joy and sadness and generosity and selfishness and forgiveness and blame is beautiful and celebratory.
Full of invention and energy, rich with suggestive details, brimming with evocative and playful technique woven into a dynamic piece of storytelling, it can seem oblique and messy. Entire histories can be suggested in a glance and a reaction and the viewer is left to fill in the rest. Yet for all the creative sprawl and seemingly inexplicable jags of human behavior, there is a magnificence to the design and the journey. Un Conte De Noel is the most dense, creative and cinematically thrilling film I’ve seen all year, a film that pulses with human life in all its terrible and beautiful irrationality.