Thursday, November 20, 2008

New Film: A Christmas Tale / Un conte de Noël

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), from a screenplay by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, opens stateside to near unanimous orgiastic praise, save for a smattering of immediately dismissible complaints that the film is overly long and/or boring - one's inability to engage with a film is not a sufficiently empirical argument by which to establish a work's relative merit; chances are pretty good in such instances that it is the reviewer rather than the work solely that wants - and to resident critical curmudgeon Armond White's critique that the director's latest "isn't repugnant, just regressive." (For this writer, White's contrariness and his lack of political correctness does not only not disqualify his opinions, but in fact confirms the vitality of his film criticism, even when he gets it wrong; dissent is nothing to fear, or to classify as "dangerous," as the anti-White watchdog site once qualified it.) On the side of more measured praise, Time Out's invaluable Geoff Andrew, who as it happens was "consistently engaged," remarked on the film's "lively if sometimes annoyingly arbitrary use of flamboyant stylistic devices." Setting aside whether or not Desplechin's formal choices are indeed 'annoying,' it is through this question of the arbitrariness of A Christmas Tale's formal choices that this writer seeks to place Desplechin's latest, both film historically and qualitatively.

A Christmas Tale opens with voiced-over narration and black paper cut-outs enacting the tragic history of the Vuillard family. Desplechin utilizes the former technique repeatedly in the film, though in future he frequently transforms the initial interior monologues into exterior vocal exposition, addressed directly into the camera. In these moments A Christmas Tale achieves a measure of immediacy, of vitality effectively foreclosed against by classical narrative cinema and its system of diegetic formation. Here, classical form is not only continually an option, but so is its transgression, for which Desplechin repeatedly opts.

On the conventional side of this rule-breaking, Desplechin's cutting reads as Godardian in its frequent usage of the jump cut and derivative of Alain Resnais circa 1963 (Muriel, namely) in its narrative elliptically. Musically, A Christmas Tale's selections range from Charles Mingus - this former sign of modernity now signifies the film's older generation - to hip hop, with youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) acting as D. J. In the utilization of this latter musical form (likewise present in the director's 2004 Kings and Queen) the film's current-ness is vividly construed. A Christmas Tale is resolutely a work of the present, of a post-modernity.

Why postmodern rather than modern, given especially the narratological inspiration of the 'New Wave'? For starters, A Christmas Tale trades on a strategy that combines the disparate, particularly on the somewhat ephemeral level of texture - hence the frequency of bad metaphors (in reviews of the work) comparing Desplechin's work with over-filled holiday confectionery. Narratively, this sense of 'post' finds representation in the feeling of aftermath, of a dysfunctional family experiencing qualified restoration. A Christmas Tale comes from precisely the same mold as Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), with which it shares the classification of modern, or again postmodern Christmas classic. (Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander [1982] likewise is a much remarked-upon source, as is the less commonly quoted The Dead, John Huston's masterful 1988 adaptation of James Joyce's The Dubliners.)

So now that the qualitative is being articulated, it remains to be said that Desplechin's is often a distinctively funny, and yes entertaining work, thanks in no small measure to Mathieu Amalric's anti-functional middle son, which is perhaps best illustrated in his misanthropic exchange with matriarch Catherine Deneuve, who professes to dislike her third child as much as he does her. Desplechin axiom Emmannuelle Devos and Deneuve's real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni additionally make welcomed supporting turns as the lover and wife of the aforementioned brothers. They helped to bring the Vuillard's to vivid life.

But back to the matter at hand: again, is the form organically-generated or is it arbitrary? The short answer is that it is both. On the level of effect, Desplechin's intuitive filmmaking does demonstrate his care with selecting variable forms, in creating a work that continually succeeds in being formally unexpected. The word that most immediately springs to mind is free - though a freedom that is hard-worn by the film's formal choices. To once again evoke Godard, and especially My Life to Live (1962), A Christmas Tale is a work that opts for every non or anti-classical technique open to its maker. A Christmas Tale never falters texturally.

Yet, on the level of the specific, the director's choices do not always or even often follow from the work's narrative content. One of the most remarkable examples is a sudden split screen in the doctor's office that Desplechin seems to adopt in lieu of shot/reverse cutting. Similarly, there is the usage of irises with no other clear justification than their unusual-ness. Or I suppose the director's free application of technique, his intuition. A Christmas Tale is properly postmodern in the sense that the signifier dislodges from the signified. Style no longer serves its narrative or thematic content as much as it seeks an effect: to procure the unexpected. Though not unexpected in the sense of shock. Rather, Desplechin's point seems to be the film's multi-grained texture; its ornate filigree as Lisa K. Broad puts it. In the words of this author, the semantic meaning of forms has been expelled and replaced with figures chosen purely for their syntactic effectiveness.

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