pourquoi? parce que

Un conte de Noël ****½

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ContedeNoelAfter listening to a delightful interview on Radio 4 with director, the charming Arnauld Desplechin, I decided to see Un conte de Noël. It is a film full of beauty and wit, in which formalist and naturalist tendencies meld to almost somnambulistic effect. The subtlety of Desplechin’s direction (and writing) verges upon poetic – he’s tapping a vast well of meaning in the subtle cracks that run through family relationships. The Vuillard clan share a terribly checkered past, but must reunite at the family pile to celebrate Christmas and orchestrate a life-saving bone-marrow transplant for Catherine Deneuve’s magisterial matriarch, Junon (bringing home the banished, insufferable drunk, Henri).

The performances are phenomenal. It’s hard to pick out any one that stands above the rest, but if I must, Mathieu Amalric as Henri. A mind-blowing performance, though the obvious choice. Anne Consigny is the ideal counterpoint as the Tartuffian banisher Elizabeth, with a captivating screen presence. Of course, there is the fuzzy patriarch by Roussillon, who delivers the one charming character, whose marital patter is unforgettable. You don’t want to leave this family behind. You want to take them with you and continue watching, however unlovable they are. Forget about running time; Desplechin wasn’t lying when he claimed he uses ten ideas whenever he could have used one. This density has the marvelous effect of emulating life, indistinguishably. Empathy? There is someone to empathize with in every scene. Who you choose is down to your character. In this sense, Un Conte de Noël achieves a strange combination of passionate and yet dispassionate portraiture, both involved and balancing at an Archimedean point.

ContedeNoel2I can’t help but make recourse to the reference points Desplechin calls upon – Midsummer Night’s Dream on the television before Paul, as we consider his relationship to his mother and grandmother; Pascal and the probability of the matriarch’s death; Nietzche as delivered by the patriarch, on self-knowledge. It’s charming that Desplechin wants his film to be accessible to his twelve-year-old self, and so that these are not lost on you even without knowledge of their provenance. He does not believe in a distinction between high and low culture in cinema, and is empowered by his ability to present such a case in point.

A truly beautiful film that I couldn’t recommend more highly.


Un conte de Noël, Dir. & Writ. Arnauld Desplechin, Writ. Bourdieu, Why Not Productions, France, 2008


Written by James P. Campbell

04/03/2009 at 12:10

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