Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NYFF dispatch #2: la pierre de famille

Perhaps I'm not the first person to run and ask about the manners and mannerisms of contemporary French society. I don't know jack about the French, and certainly the French language is a mystery to me when spoken.... I don't speak a lick of it, and it never sounds to me how it is spelled. These are digressions though: what's up with French humor? Is it so deadpan and lackluster that the laughter comes from the heart of cynicism? Suddenly these sound like my kind of people.

I posit this, only because I was struck by the kind of deadpan atmosphere of comedy fostered by the Vuillon family in A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël], part of the main slate of the 46th New York Film Festival as put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, starting this Friday. I'm a fan of French cinema new and old, but I can't say I've seen many French comedies. A Christmas Tale isn't exactly a comedy (actually, no.... this movie is drama all the way), but it has a stunning scene between Vuillon family matriarch Junon (played by Catherine Deneuve, ravishing forever this woman is) and her crackpot adult son Henri (the guy from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, aka The Sea Inside) as they sit together in the snowy backyard of the family's homestead. They talk almost off-handedly about how neither of them like each other very much (he a bad son, she a bad mother), yet the venom is drained out of their words. Are they joking with each other? They're not smirking. I'd want to believe yes, except the scene is played so non-chalantly that it feels like they're only discussing the boring truth they've both known forever. But they love each other. It's there.

Director Arnaud Desplechin (who I am unfamiliar with, though I'm told his films are always off-kilter) gives us a Christmas tale that volleys some pretty standard tropes about family Christmas movies: estranged siblings, loner grandchildren, sick but brave family elders. Although the pieces don't seem to be trumpeting anything new, I'd argue that Desplechin deploys them in ways that caught me off guard. His style could be described as jumpy; scenes are strung together by non-sequitirs, sometimes punctuated by distracting title cards for each "movement" of the film. The cast of characters have quite a lot going on, sometimes independent of many of those throughout the movie, and in order to balance things out, it feels as though Desplechin applies contrasting settings (the warm Vuillon family home, the cold hospital, the neon darkness of a discotheque in town). I think he's driving for something that appears fragmentary but has more connective tissue than meets the eye.... not unlike how families grow as the children return home as adults.

The Vuillons seem to be wrested at the hands of eldest daughter Elizabeth who seems to always want to be at the center of some power struggle no matter how much she has to create one. Her reasons for "banishing" Henri from her sight are shoddy at best.... she claims to be worn down by his screw-ups throughout his whole life, so she pays off his debts in one swoop and then announces she never wishes to interact with him again. Boy, does that make family get-togethers awkward. Instead of demanding answers or counseling her in any other way, the family sort of goes with it, and in effect Elizabeth has sealed herself off from anything jolly the family ever has a hand in. It's interesting how her trajectory plays, though, because she is absolutely convinced she has done the right thing.... and is blind to the fact that her consistent misery might have something to do with the fact that she's a heartless bitch.

But Henri's no angel.... we learn that mental instability runs in the family, and Henri is just jumping on the bandwagon. Maybe he's even faking it. Elizabeth's teenage son is starting to show signs of early schizophrenia, and apparently younger Vuillon son Ivan has been miraculously cured in adulthood of his similar teenage affliction. Henri makes some wild outbursts when home with the fam, and somehow his not-so-much-a-bombshell bombshell girlfriend sits back and politely laughs about it all. The family seems complacent in Henri's edginess, but that could just be denial talking. You'd think this was an American family.

To try to divulge all the inner workings of this family would take a good long while.... but why bother? Even if there's a shoehorned topsy-turvy love affair at the end, does that change our view of a family teetering on the edge? I left the film with only flatline words to describe it, like "weird" or "strange", but only in terms of subject matter.... to be hoenst, at face-value, it seems pretty straightforward.

The core of the story sits between Junon and Henri, and in some part with Elizabeth's son. Junon, recently diagnosed with a rare cancer, is in need of a bone marrow donor.... and both Henri and Elizabeth's son have the perfect matches. And here in lies the dilemma: Junon would be happy to accept either as a donor, but what does it mean to have the bone marrow of a schizophrenic teenager transplanted into you? What does it mean to have the bone marrow of a child how was unable to save a previous child from a similar death? How do each of these players feel about it?

The movie clocks in at 150 minutes, and it feels like a stretch. There's lots of interesting drama, but not much explanation of its roots; the viewer occupies the spot of Henri's bombshell (?) girlfriend here, the outsider thrust into this world without much background. I can't help but think of a handful of scenes (hell, subplots) that could have ended up on the cutting room floor, and perhaps some filling in of the blanks behind Elizabeth's and Henri's separate madnesses. Why not spend more time on the schizophrenic grandson's illness, why not pull his thoughts/fears/feelings to the forefront? Where are the connections between him and hius uncles? More coloring within the lines is needed. But this is a family drama, and unlike recent American family dramas I've seen of late (Christmas types no less.... The Family Stone, anyone?), this movie feels like it's aiming to strike deeper, and at least does the pick-axeing necessary to get started.

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