By Ron Holloway | July 10, 2008
Critically acclaimed in the French press as one of the key directors in the “new” nouvelle vague – along with Luc Besson, Leos Carax, Claire Denis, and Olivier Assayas – Arnaud Desplechin rose to the top of that list when his Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (France, 2008) was screened at Cannes – the fourth time he has competed for Palme d’Or laurels. Billed as a sure crowd pleaser, A Christmas Tale was all of that.
Slotted in the Cannes festival calendar on a prime Friday evening, the scheduled screening enabled thousands on French television to catch a glimpse of favorite stars as they posed on the red carpet before the Grand Staircase of the Palais des Festivals. Only the steady fall of rain marred the event. Running at two-and-a-half-hours, A Christmas Tale is yet another Desplechin talk show, a specialty enjoyed by Gaulic audiences. Packed with veteran stage-and-screen thespians, headed by Catherine Deneuve, the doyenne of French cinema, it is a sure bet to entertain the home audience when it opens in France later on May 21. As for the arthouse audience abroad, they need only wait until the Christmas season to catch up. A longer release in the States is questionable at best. Since the film was once listed in its preproducton data as A Christmas Tale: Roubaix!!, the director serves notice that he is returning to his roots.
Born in 1960 in Roubaix, Arnaud Desplechin graduated from IDHEC in 1984, worked as a cameraman for Eric Rochant and Nico Papatakis, then debuted in the International Week of the Critics at the 1991 Cannes festival with the short feature La vie des morts. A treatise on suicide, it was awarded the Jean Vigo Prize for Best Short Film. A year later, Desplechin was invited to compete at the 1992 Cannes festival with La Sentinelle. The story of a German medical student on his way to study in Paris, he is surprised on the train to discover a human head in his baggage. The Sentinel was awarded the Prix Georges Sadoul for Best Debut Feature. Two more invitations to compete at Cannes followed: My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument (1996), his most commercially successful film, and Esther Kahn (2000), about a Jewish girl in pursuit of a theatrical career in 19th-century London. Shot in English, Esther Kahn also drew critical attention because the costume drama benefitted from an added dramatic effect: a tone-deaf protagonist. The film ran for a year in Parisian cinemas. Desplechin penchant for theatrical themes was explored even further in Playing “In the Company of Men”, invited to open the Un Certain Regard section at the 2003 Cannes festival. A screen adaptation of Edward Bond’s blistering play about the iniquity of boardroom power games, In the Company of Men was published in 1989 and first staged at Avignon in 1992. In Desplechin’s view, the play was a timely scathing attack on sweeping corruption at stock exchanges and business centers the world over. The key factor in the critical success of Playing “In the Company of Men” was Desplechin’s approach to filming an ensemble of actors as they, in turn, set about to stage Edward Bond’s play.
Much the same approach to ensemble acting was used in A Christmas Tale. Running at two-and-a-half-hours, the talk-fest production is packed with veteran stage-and screen thespians at their loquacious best. The setting of this fast-paced family drama is an estate in Roubaix. Here, a painful reunion takes place at Christmas, during which sparks begin to fly from the very outset. The root of the animosity was a family tragedy that happened years before. After Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve) had two children, their afflicted son Joseph needed a bone-marrow transplant to survive. Neither the parents, nor the daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), were compatible, so a third child, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), was conceived. Again incompatible, so Joseph died. And the family never recovered. From that point on, family relationships were strained to the limit, with the daughter Elizabeth eventually taking over the family reins when Henri turns out to be a cynical wastrel and is thrown out of the household. The Christmas reunion, bringing together other members of the family circle, is primed for an eruption – one well worth two hours of chatter to figure out the plot. It turns out that now Junon is seriously ill with an affliction that requires another genetic compatibility to ensure a few more years of life. Catherine Deneuve has seldom been better. Her surprising approach to a possible painful death sentence, as frightening as it is, draws a measured and pragmatic response. She was awarded the Special 60th Anniversary Prize.
– Ron Holloway
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