by Ryland Walker Knight
Weird: the title of my recent essay about a (possible) Desplechin double bill almost describes this new film. Except, of course, that this house, if it is baggy, is the kind of baggy you see a big man wearing; the kind that you can tell is full of body, full of flesh and torsion and not-quite hidden (not even silent) liquids. The house is the thing in A Christmas Tale, which, in a way, operates as a sequel to La Vie Des Morts, as it was shot in the same house in the same Northern cold in the same giveaway sumptuousness. Were my memory more reliable I might could say something else about the divergences but (suffice to say?) for now, at the least, I can offer that the maximal new film fulfills the precipitate preview-promise of the debut: there will be drama. And—hey, get this!—blood! The focus on blood here is, let's be real, a bald-faced joke. But it's the kind of joke that hides behind the joke that masks another joke; jokes everywhere, always, going in every direction, just like this narrative (if we want to call it that), just like this family sprawls, just like this house opens its hiding places and unmasks the world.
The house is the cinema, too, we gather. It holds histories and stages opportunities for new life, and new love, all kinds of desires and passions. Desplechin's cinema revels in these possibilities. Hoberman writes: "Expansive but cozy, convoluted yet circular, at once avant and retro, and contradictory down to its last scene, the movie ends with a new myth—if not a new cosmology—articulated by the writer Elizabeth." It's easy to point to the quotes in a Desplechin film (they abound) but it's often harder to secure their significance, much less their relevance, in tidy equations; his constellation of associations splays. The most pronounced quotations in A Christmas Tale (amidst the swirl of Funny Face and The Ten Commandments, Cecil Taylor and beat juggling, Emerson, Vertigo and Bergman; hell, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson) are, as is fitting, from two masters of the reversal: the opening of Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morals and multiple scenes and motifs and themes from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and an "of course!" nod to A Winter's Tale. This cosmology Hoberman hints at—I cannot but spoil his delicious hints—is Elizabeth's appropriation of Puck's final address in her own final address (via voiceover crossing into diegetic speech, "la parole" as she would say) that reminds us, yes, tomorrow is another day in the world of our choosing. Of course, although some try and some do succeed (adoption), on a basic level it remains unavoidable that we do not choose our family. We build the house about the family and we foster it, nurture it, as best we may in those walls; but we cannot renege our stock in the world. Or, that aim goes nowhere, gets nowhere. And there's nowhere but here.
Committed to contradiction as a form of life as much as a form of cinema (isn't the cinema a form of life?), Desplechin's films are often rightly described as "too much" but I'd like to claim that not as a derision; I'd rather say that most other films are "too little." Of course, don't get me wrong, I dig purity, too: Bresson is, is, like, totally—are you kidding me? And yet, I've always been attracted to the baroque, the proliferating and the layering of the image-and-sound. And, of course—are you kidding me?—Bresson is a king of layering sensations; but austerity is after a different endgame. Maybe that's just it: there's no endgame with Desplechin. Films end but, like all great storytellers, it's easy—hell, it's desirable, luxurious, seductive—to imagine the characters living forward, finding the world and building it again every day. I saw A Christmas Tale twice in two days. The first experience was dictated by my fatigue: lots of silent smiling tears. The second was directed by my exuberant enjoyment: a serious front-row grin. We contain multitudes, right?
Gushing on the phone, I told my friend, "It's a reminder that you can make art about yourself and not be an asshole." What I forgot to add is that, well, even if you are an asshole (it seems pretty unavoidable given enough time), you can aim for grace with the right kind of joke. But then we remember that, no matter how sumptuous the right kind of laugh can feel across our bodies, some jokes hurt. What separates A Christmas Tale from its decidedly more affable cousins, Kings and Queen and My Sex Life... (if not exactly reaching Esther Kahn), is the frightfully simple-looking plait of melodrama and comedy Desplechin mounts here. It's a film of reversals but it's not about simultaneity. It's this and that but those things are neither here nor there nor everywhere but anywhere what so ever as long as its bonds are not severed; the ties do bind; celluloid remains a strip; for all the cubist fades, this is not a film as network; I'm afraid to see Desplechin's digital brain if only because I adore this emulsion and this bleeding so; strands bounce against and into one another but the limits reign in the will to sovereignty. Indeed: as soon as Matthieu Amalric's typically dervish Henri climbs out a window and down the side of the house, he re-enters through the back door—only to leave through the front—we might say, through the mouth—to attend midnight mass with his mother, Junon (the rather-perfect, still-vibrant Catherine Deneuve), whom he hours before called "Le Con Capitain."
—And I think, "masculine?"