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Saturday, April 16, 2011

UN CONTE DE NOEL / A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008)

Superb. Writer/director Arnaud Desplechin pulled in a stellar cast for this home-for-the-holidays drama which uses a medical crisis to bait a richly textured exploration of how parents & their children (and their children’s children) find infinite ways to get along, get mad, get together, get on with it and get out of each others’ way. Between the parents, the kids, a few cousins, in-laws, friends & grandkids, you won’t find a false note from anyone, but Catherine Deneuve (Mom/Grandmom), Mathieu Amalric (the wayward middle son) & Emmanuelle Devos (as Amalric’s latest flame) are simply beyond praise. The set up may sound a bit soapy (Deneuve comes down with a blood cancer & needs a bone-marrow match), but the execution handles it with the asymmetrical honesty of real family life. Desplechin paces this longish film beautifully, nicely filling in background detail when needed,* and manages to ‘see plain’ some of the mystery of family relationships in a manner rarely encountered on screen.

*There is, at least for English-speaking audiences, a bit of confusion getting all the characters straight. It stems from Deneuve’s husband, who's so much older, you think you’ve missed a generation. You can avoid this problem by first watching the American trailer which neatly parses all the main relationships. But be warned! It also has the disadvantage of making this film look like a French version of Ron Howard’s PARENTHOOD/’89. If anything, this film is the antitheses of that commercially savvy tummy-rub.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Desplechin displays quite an eclectic film palette with clips from A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM/’35; THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56 and FUNNY FACE/’57 showing up. And he had the whole cast watch ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39 before the shoot. Yet, the film this most calls to mind is Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER/’‘83; the original Swedish tv cut, please, not the U.S. theatrical release.

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