“Incroyable! Why are those people lining up for Four Christmases?”
A CHRISTMAS TALE directed by Arnaud Desplechin, written by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, with Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Devos. A Seville Pictures release. 150 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (November 28). For venues and times, see Movies.
If you're looking for a movie to set the mood for the holiday season, skip Four Christmases and go directly to A Christmas Tale.
The emotional honesty and contorted family dynamics of Arnaud Desplechin's mordant seriocomedy wipe the floor with the facile mechanics of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon's mass-produced lump of coal.
A Christmas Tale was embraced by critics at its Cannes premiere. And no wonder. Like all of the director's films, it's a furiously complicated construction, distinguished by sudden shifts in tone, obsessive digressions into incidental details and emotional revelations that detonate like depth charges in the lives of unsuspecting supporting characters.
Its creator similarly overflows with ideas. At the Toronto Film Festival, where A Christmas Tale had its Canadian premiere, the unassuming Desplechin sits down with his (barely needed) translator and does his best to explain his creative process, his sentences firing off in three or four different directions.
A discussion about his cinematic influences, for example, compels him to point out that a character playing with a cigarette in the opening scene of his movie steals a moment from John Ford's My Darling Clementine. And there are other more general points of reference.
Mathieu Amalric steps into another great role.
"Jean Renoir, for the ethical position," he says. "Truffaut, for the difficulty of being French and making film. And Bergman and Scorsese, because of their craft to transform anything into action.
"I guess that in this process of trying to incorporate or to be faithful to the films I admire so much, that's how I start to find my own voice. The admiration I have for filmmakers, this gratitude, perhaps that's my only way to become specific."
A Christmas Tale, Desplechin says, started with an idea for a story of a splintered family brought back together for one uncomfortable holiday by the news of a parent's illness. Once he recruited Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos - who all appear in his 2004 masterwork, Kings And Queen - for key roles, the characters shaped themselves.
"Henri's character without Mathieu would be a totally different character," Desplechin explains. "Faunia's character just belongs to Emmanuelle, she doesn't belong to me. The actors are creating the characters with my lines. I can just propose, and if they feel comfortable to inhabit what I'm proposing, then something will happen. It's just glances, a glimpse, something that can only happen with a camera."
It's all part of an intuitive process designed to tell grand stories through the prism of ordinary lives.
"I think it was Wittgenstein - I don't know, someone clever - who said that the task of cinema was to take big words and bring them back home. Not to leave them for the bourgeoisie at the theater.
They lose big words, and it's important to bring them back home, back to life. Cinema is popular. And I love the fact that you take bits and pieces, stuff that no one's read, abstract concepts, and you try to depict the common life with that in a very popular form. To create stupid entertainment. I love that."
Arnaud Desplechin on how he perceives himself as a filmmaker:
On his cinematic influences and fascinations: