Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Un conte de Noël
Recently, the dysfunctional family movie seems to be making a comeback: first there was The Squid and the Whale, and then Rachel Getting Married. And, of course, the holidays have never been safe, given that at Christmastime we're all jammed together in the same house, forced to visit relatives we may or may not care for . . . and, predictably, grudges and bad attitudes rear their ugly heads along to the tune of "Jingle Bells."
But Arnaud Desplechin's movie is anything but predictable. A family torn apart by death and dysfunction reunites during the holidays when its matriarch, played by the ever gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, announces she has bone cancer. (Seriously: did this woman sell her soul to the devil? I don't understand how beautiful she is). Her illness is linked to the same disease that killed her son, Joseph, when he was only six, an event that fractured this family forever.
While the film is too long by about twenty minutes (this seems to be symptomatic of this genre), it is successful in illuminating the thin thread that bonds one to our relations, and how, in times of struggle or grief, a retreat into isolation can sometimes backfire. Elizabeth, the eldest child of Junon (Deneuve) and her husband Abel (the joyful Jean-Paul Roussillon), pays off her brother's debts in exchange for his absence. She calmly asks her father and the court to accept the money on the condition that she never have to see her younger brother again. Her reasoning is both mysterious and perplexing, but Anne Consigny plays the part with such grace and depth of sorrow that one is almost afraid (like the rest of her family) to question her motivation.
So, at Christmas, it has been six years since Elizabeth has seen Henri, her brother. In a delightful display of debauchery and intense accusations, Matthieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) once again steals the show in his self-destructive, ridiculous Henri. What follows is almost exotic in its European-ness: inside the house, avec les enfants, there is chain-smoking, fist-fights, sex, and a massive consumption of red-wine. While Americans may indulge in drinking and barbed language, the almost laid-back indulgence of this family seems to be old-hat. At one point, when Henri collapses after calling both his mother and sister "cunts," Junon simply replies, "Good, Henri was wearing me out, anyway," and cackles like a witch as he is carried up to bed.
The plot, waffles. There are occasional flourishes of unnecessary magic which feel out of place, albeit enjoyable. The power of this film is in the strength of the development and complexity of literally every single one of these characters. And there are several. While their independent stories sometime detract from the main point of the film (Junon's illness, reconciliation), each is entirely believable and fascinating in itself. For instance, Sylvie's story (Ivan, the youngest son's wife) may be the most tragic. Superbly acted by Catherine Deneuve's real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, one can't resent the slight rerouting of the plot.
In many ways, this narrative-snafus reflects the beauty of the family unit. Each part is intimidating and intense in its isolation, its individual experience, and sadly, oftentimes these cracks cannot be mended. But it is that sentimental sense of the holidays, and of events we cannot control, that force us to come together, even in resentment, where the slight touch of a hand, or the memory of a first-dance, can bring us all to appreciate the whole: whether it is ideal, or not.