Film: A Christmas Tale Opens Tonight at the Bridge
It’s hard to know where to start with a film as rich as A Christmas Tale (trailer), which opens tonight, November 21st at the Bridge Theater for an exclusive one-week run. It’s under consideration for one of France’s top film honors, the Louis Delluc prize, and no wonder: in two and a half hours that never drag or bore, director Arnaud Desplechin explores every aspect of a crazy dysfunctional family, and takes us on a journey that, for all its length, almost feels a bit too short.
The heart of the story is Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), whose three adult children have been locked for years into a state of passive-aggressive feuding. Overshadowing their lives is the fate of their oldest child Joseph, who died of leukemia forty years earlier at the age of seven. When Junon develops the same disease — and there is a chance that one of her children may be able to donate marrow to save her life — they all return to the family home to be tested, and for the holidays. Merry Christmas!
It sounds like a depressing film — as Desplechin himself said of it, everything “in the scenario should scare a producer half to death” — but in fact it’s often quite hilarious, and all the tragedy is treated with a light touch that somehow doesn’t trivialize it. But in the end that’s very true to life. Add in the wonderful cast — Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Devos, Hippolyte Girardot, and Chiara Mastroianni (the only actress I can’t stop thinking about and Deneuve’s real-life daughter) — and it’s a film you just can’t miss.
Desplechin visited San Francisco back in October to attend a screening of the film at the San Francisco Film Society’s French Cinema Now festival. We chatted in his hotel suite; his accommodations delighted him so much that he took us out onto the balcony to share the amazing view he had of downtown and the bay. We enjoyed a rich, wide-ranging discussion about this and his other films, about his process, his opinions about various films ranging from Fanny and Alexander to The Royal Tenenbaums to The Outsiders, his plans to make a film about the birth of hip-hop in France, and why he refuses to think about casting while working on a script — even if, as with the case of Catherine Deneuve in this film, there’s really nobody else who could do the role.
It’s a lengthy interview but well worth your time, if you’d like to get a glimpse into the mind of one of the finest directors working in France today. Full text after the jump.
You’re sometimes compared to Truffaut, but as I watched this film, I kept thinking of Fanny and Alexander. It was partly the Christmas holiday, but it was mainly how comprehensively this peels back the surface of one family’s life, and really explores the tensions between the individual family members.
Fanny and Alexander must be the one film I know by heart. For me it is the absolute Bible; everything that I love in cinema, is in that film. It was very important for me because, in a certain sense, I was its exact contemporary. It came out at exactly the right time, and I was exactly the right age to receive it. And it was extremely important for Eric Gautier [the DP] as well. So when we did our first film together, which was La vie des morts, we just used Fanny and Alexander because we knew it by heart. But when we started working on this film, for me it was too close because of the Christmas thing, so I didn’t allow myself to watch it again. I used three other films to escape from Fanny and Alexander.
What were those other films?
One was The Dead, the John Huston movie, because there’s a Christmas there too. But mainly I was in love with two movies that were released the same year in France. One was Saraband, the last Ingmar Bergman movie, and the second one was The Royal Tenenbaums.
No kidding! Well, I can certainly see the connections there.
Yes. And I really fell in love with the two films. They were so close. To me they both had the same plot. You have one divorce, one suicide, you have one family, trapped in a house.
One is funny but it’s not that funny. Mainly the Anderson movie is about despair, like all of his movies, and the other one — you could say, because Bergman was the director, that it’s not funny, it’s threatening, there is incest … and I was thinking, am I the only person who sees these two films and sees how much they have in common? And I thought that my film could be the thing that these two films share.
Okay, you mentioned La vie des morts, and of course that was the film of yours that I kept thinking of, because obviously, in both films, the threat of an impending death draws a fragmented family together into one physical space. Was this film a way to have another go at that material?
Well, yes. When I brought my first sketches of this to the producer, I felt a little embarrassed because, you know, it’s a little silly, I already did this, and it was kind of a trick to do it twice, just with brand-new materials. The structure of it, I mean — come on. It’s a house, it’s a family, they’re attracted there. But the producer really responded to it. In a way, it wasn’t entirely pleasant for me. Much like Fanny and Alexander, La vie des morts was something I wanted to keep out of my mind.
This is a rather somber drama, but there’s also a great deal of humor in it. And wherever there is alienation and hatred in the family, there is also tenderness and love. Junon has this wonderful line: “Thanks to my disease, we’re being reunited.” Did you consciously try to strike a balance between melancholy and humor?
Not really. I’d say it’s worse than balance, it’s something much deeper than that.
First of all, everything that is in the scenario should scare a producer half to death. I mean listen to me, “it’s actually a family with a dead kid, plus the mother is dying, and her grandson is going crazy and tries to kill himself, plus the sister and the brother hate each other’s guts, and these three couples are just moved by despair and brutality.” It’s a story with despair, death, failure, lack of money, suicide.
So how can one transform this material into something that would be pure enjoyment? You know, to transform all the things that, on a narrative level, would seem to be a burden, and to transform this burden into energy.
Really the first sketch I showed the producer was that quote from Emerson, the opening lines, being said by the father in the graveyard. He’s speaking of the death of his young kid, who was seven years old. The point of those lines is: my son has died, but I feel no sorrow, he’s just like a leaf falling from the tree. It’s just so cruel, it’s so brutal, but I knew it would be good material for an actor because it has such poetic strength. It became a kind of quest to create a character who would be capable of saying such a thing.
So here you find the narrative principle of the movie: the father is not denying the fact that his son is dead; he is contesting the value of sorrow.
What we usually think is that the gentle parts of life won’t teach you anything, but that the brutal parts will. Sadness or suffering or cancer or suicide, they all teach me things about life, and the gentle part teaches you nothing. But the father is saying: no, no — I contest sorry, I contest death. I think laughter has more value than weeping.
Obviously this is absurd. That’s why, I guess the family is so sick, because this contestation becomes the moral principle of the family. It’s a family that contests the value of sorrow.
Do you think that’s because otherwise their sorrows would overwhelm them?
I suppose so. For sure for the father, because you can see that he can’t spend a day without thinking about his lost son. I guess all the rest of the family forgot him, but for the father, well … you see photos of the son on the table, on the bed, everywhere, the father can think of nothing else. But — he contests the value of sorrow.
Told you it was worse than mere balance!
Where did this image of the wolf come from? It’s such an effective way to remind the audience of all these sorrows hanging over the family. The hallucination, the story about the wolf in the basement, and so on.
Well, there’s always stories like that in families, and in people’s houses. But it’s true what you say, the wolf represents sorrow, the cancer, and all that. But at the same time it represents a kind of power that the grandson is attracted to. There’s a scene I like very much, when the young man looks at his reflection in the mirror, and when he says, if I donate my bone marrow, I might kill my grandmother. There’s a feeling of power he gets from that, and even enjoyment. “This could make me an adult, and I could even be as nasty as my uncle!” And so that wolf, the image of that wolf, it’s an ambiguous image for the young man, in his episodes of madness.
It’s both an omen and a promise.
Yes, that’s right, exactly. It exists in both senses.
Many of these actors have worked with you before. Did you have casting in mind as you developed the script?
I forbid myself to think about that question while writing. Otherwise I’d be certain to restrict the role, to bend the role around my preconception of what that actor could do. If I think I’m writing for Mathieu [Almaric], for example, it will restrain the part.
You know that scene where he’s walking along drunk and he’s mumbling all that obscene, weird stuff? When I wrote that I thought, Mathieu won’t be able to act this. So I wrote a second text that I thought would be easier to do. So on the third day of shooting I said to him, let’s do the new text because the old one would just be too weird. And he looked at me almost with tears in his eyes and said: “But I can play it. Let me play it.” He was so sad, because I was trying to restrict the role according to this idea I had about him.
This was so even with Deneuve. That character is an older woman, and you know, there just aren’t that many French actresses, of her caliber, at her age. So the producer said of this character, “Deneuve, for sure.” But I said, “forget it.” Deneuve can play perhaps this, that, or the other, but not this role. And so we worked very dilligently to find five other possible actresses for that role. After we did all that, we were looking at all the photos we had up there on the board, and when the producer saw it he just laughed, saying, “obviously, it’s still going to be Deneuve.” In the end, she came by the producer’s office on some other business, and before she left she said to him, “I hear that Mr. Desplechin is making a film and he needs an actress, may I give you my photo?” So we called her the next day. But we did all the other stuff before that!
What’s next for you?
I have two little embryonic sketches that I’m working with. One I’m sure I’ll use is — you know this new American genre of films set in the 1980s? They evoke the 80s and the feeling of 80s films — late 70s, early 80s. And recently I saw a film set in the early 90s, it was called The Wackness. It was okay. I saw the trailer of it and thought it would be great, then I saw the movie and thought it was a little lazy.
Even so, I thought it would be really interesting to try to adapt that kind of genre to a French setting, and the birth of hip-hop in France. Because we are actually the only country outside the USA where hip-hop is so strong. And why? Yes, a lot of French hip-hop is made by North Africans, and black Africans, but also by a lot of white people, and it’s — so you see, it really belongs to everybody. And I would love to show this moment of its history.
You remember The Outsiders, the old Coppola movie? I recently saw the new editing of it. It’s a little bizarre because, it’s an 80s film, but it’s this revival of the 50s in the 80s.
I’d forgotten about that movie. I haven’t seen it since I was 14!
Well, don’t see it again, because now you are too old for it. You would be a little embarrassed by some of the writing, sometimes it’s just — well. The cast is amazing. But the idea I have is, this bunch of young people during the 80s, you know, at the very birth of this music that we don’t always understand, because it’s so bizarre and political, and has drug dealers and gangs and so on. So what I was a little disappointed by in The Wackness, what I missed there, I would love to try and create that.
There’s another aspect to this. One of my first films was a spy story. I was really young then, and I had certain views about the cinema. I’d like to do something like that again, but in the meantime we’ve seen all these impossibilities become reality: September 11th, a united Europe. I’d like to go back and revisit that genre, in light of the impossible having taken place. You could say that I’d like to find some way to acknowledge September 11th from Europe. You know, it’s so difficult to tell a big story about the state of the world, but it should be possible for me to find a way to make a personal statement about the way things have changed.
And the hero will be a girl. That much I know!
[Translation from the French, where necessary, by myself and Don McMahon.]