The Dread of Failure: On Desplechin and Kaufman

The Dread of Failure: On Desplechin and Kaufman

The Dread of Failure: On Desplechin and Kaufman

Reviews: Arnaud Desplechin’s enchanted A Christmas Tale and Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Synedoche, New York.


©Jean-Claude Lother/Why Not ProductionsMathieu Amalric as Henri in A Christmas Tale

We make time: by flirting or declaring a break, by observing holidays or arranging the passing moments into music and theater. And time is always ready to unmake us. Maybe death comes in due season–with the fullness of time–or maybe it strikes like a Shakespearean tyrant, sending us off without reason or warning.

All these types of making and undoing–celebratory and mournful, measured and arbitrary, fleshly and fanciful–get gloriously mixed together within the running time of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. You settle in for the duration: a very fluid two and a half hours, in the course of which no fewer than a dozen characters will take turns commanding your attention. They are members of a middle-class French family, gathered in a typically drab industrial city for their typically fractious holiday reunion; but given the surrounding atmosphere, you might almost see them as goddesses and queens, wood nymphs and bedazzled wanderers. A phantom wolf prowls the house; a fabled monster threatens to burn up the mother; and a snatch of music, running from scene to scene, tells you the world’s been turned upside down. The Vuillard children have come home from Paris in late December, but the soundtrack keeps playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Surely the parents of this clan, like an ill-matched Titania and Oberon, could have been united only by magic. The father (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is squat, croaking, rheumy-eyed, blubber-lipped, and labors under the doomed name of Abel. But somehow, though by trade he dyes fabrics, his métier is to radiate wisdom and delight. Somehow, though accurately self-described as “an old toad,” he enjoys marriage to a golden beauty, who bears the divine name of Junon and the form of Catherine Deneuve.

She is a fallible deity, as are most mothers in their children’s minds. When first seen, fixing a tea tray in her house in Roubaix, she taps shut a cabinet with her hip, as would any mortal in her kitchen, and then precipitates the plot by falling down. But after her vulnerability has been diagnosed–an aggressive cancer, treatable only on a dare–Junon resumes her serene imperiousness. Perhaps she will allow one of her offspring to prove worthy of her by donating bone marrow for a transplant. “It’s not done,” her oncologist protests, on strictly medical grounds. (He doesn’t know this is going to be a competition.) Junon shrugs off the objection. She gave life to her children, she says. Why shouldn’t one of them give life to her?

She is clearly not a goddess of the self-sacrificing kind; and if her reasoning seems topsy-turvy, it’s no more irrational than her brood. The most conventional of her children is the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who packs liquor bottles in his pockets, boasts of his history of madness and maintains a less-than-bourgeois career as a turntable artist. At first glance, this lean and handsome blade with the buzz-cut head and dashing wardrobe is an orchestrator of mischief. (He’s the one who shows up at Christmas with the box of fireworks.) But it’s all bluster. Soon enough you realize that Ivan is a homebody, wholeheartedly devoted to his glowing wife (Chiara Mastroianni) and two small sons.

More successful than Ivan, but more troubled, is Junon’s eldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a playwright with a string of well-received productions to her credit and a husband (Hippolyte Girardot) who is a fine-looking, world-renowned mathematician. You’d think all should be well with her; but she makes her first appearance in the film in her psychiatrist’s office, pouring out a complaint about sterility, rage and endless mourning. Why has this pale and delicate woman, still lovely in her 40s, retreated inward? Why does her every statement sound like an accusation, her every gesture come accompanied by a suppressed tremor? “Why do you hate your brother?” asks the analyst.

Which brings us to the middle child, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the one who’s a mess both inside and out. In passing, you learn that he manages to hold down a job at an auction house. Mostly, though, he devotes his energy to sarcasm, recklessness, obscenity, financial malfeasance and public drunkenness–none of which is adequate to explain why Elizabeth suddenly had him banished (her exact word) from the family. That was five years ago; ever since, Henri has been able to meet Ivan and Abel only haphazardly, on the sly. He hasn’t seen his nephews at all (and now can’t even recognize them); and of course he’s been denied the right to come to Roubaix for Christmas. For what crime is this the punishment? “I feel as if I’m living in a myth, and I don’t know which one,” Henri says in one scene, speaking directly to a camera that dollies in until you’re looking at an extreme close-up of his vulpine face. The eyes are so deep and brown, they seem dilated even under the cinematographer’s lamps.

Three grown children, one of whom might be compatible with Junon and offer her the transplant that could save her life, or just as likely kill her. (The treatment is potentially fatal.) As for her fourth child, Joseph: he can do nothing, because he too was a cancer patient, who died as a boy, forty years ago. He did not get a transplant; no one was compatible. For the entire Vuillard family, this was the founding catastrophe. And yet, at the funeral, Abel spoke of it in his own upside-down way: “Joseph has made me his son–and I am filled with joy.”

I tell you all this, and still I haven’t gotten past the movie’s prologue.

It takes about half an hour of screen time, until everyone gets packed into the house, for A Christmas Tale to reveal its nature fully: expansive in narrative scheme, compact in emotional space and self-consciously auteurist to the core. Here are the actors who have served as Desplechin’s stock company over the years; here is his hometown; and here are the themes and motifs he’s identified as his own. Professional moviegoers can tick them off their Desplechin list, beginning with mental instability, parental rejection and life-threatening illness, followed by Jews, antic misbehavior, intellectual fencing and echoes of great stories of the past. The sense that the film is full to overflowing is yet another of these authorial markers. You can think of them as guides to an experience created by a strong artistic personality; or you can ask to what degree they have now become sales handles, used to promote an established product. “A film by Arnaud Desplechin”: signature or brand?

The question comes to mind because A Christmas Tale is less breakneck than Kings and Queen, less unforeseeable than Esther Kahn, less disputatious (I guess that’s the word) than My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. There’s less risk-taking in it and more of an impression that a masterful filmmaker is permitting himself liberties–including the right to resolve the story perfunctorily, literally with a coin toss. (Talk about flippancy.) I excuse everything on the grounds that Desplechin is exercising a self-assurance he’s earned. Suspicious minds might be forgiven, though, if they note how A Christmas Tale positions itself not just within Desplechin’s career but within a known commercial enterprise. It evokes the marketable memory of Jean Renoir. It brings out an A list of French performers. It offers viewers the comfort of a moneyed and cultured milieu and (as a house-party movie) the prospect of somebody’s getting laid. It is, in short, a prestige production, worthy of France’s tradition of quality.

But a little perspective: the telltale films in that maligned tradition, the ones that François Truffaut savaged as a “certain tendency in French cinema,” were in the sneering and reductive strain known as psychological realism. Desplechin practices psychoanalytic realism, which is not at all the same. His characters, creatures of unknown depths and mythical underpinnings, are always bigger than their circumstances–Abel, for example, is livelier and more profound than any aging dye merchant needs to be. And the circumstances resist explanation, in the manner of dreams that loop back on themselves. Elizabeth, sister of the Vuillard family’s lost boy, has another potentially lost boy on her hands in her teenage son Paul (Emile Berling), who takes antipsychotics and has an affinity for knives. Henri, son of a terrifyingly candid mother, comes back to Roubaix with the ferocious Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), a terrifyingly candid girlfriend.

These uncanny doublings and reversals, make of them what you will, keep rushing at you; and so do the formal elements of A Christmas Tale, which have their own too-muchness. The soundtrack is more barrage than collage, blasting through and across scenes with a mix of Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Mingus, “Merry Christmas, Baby,” you name it. The camera placements and editing are done on an anything-goes basis, quickly tossing at you three or four different views of a character in medium close-up and then finishing the series by dizzyingly dropping back fifty yards. The décor of the house in Roubaix (once you get to it) is thick with family photos and children’s paintings–of course–but it is also layered with half-glimpsed books and newspaper clippings and record album covers, all of which seem like clues you don’t have time to decipher. Yes, Desplechin has reached the stage where he can throw all this together without evidence of strain; but as much as ever, he is staggered by the possibility of what it might mean.

Some artists suggest answers. Desplechin gives a range of responses between rational calculation and irrational desire; and it’s characteristic that he does so most explicitly in A Christmas Tale in a brief lecture about time. It’s one of the movie’s most improbably thrilling scenes, in which Elizabeth’s husband, the math wizard, shows how to figure Junon’s prognosis for survival along a continuous time scale, with values from zero years to infinity. The catch, he explains, is that Junon can either accept or reject the dangerous treatment, but she cannot refuse to make a choice. “You’re already in the game,” he says gently. “You have to play.”

So do we all, every moment of our lives; but we rarely make the time so beautiful.

I wish my deadline had allowed me to praise Synecdoche, New York a few weeks ago, before the picture opened, because a gloomy premonition tells me you won’t have a chance to see it much longer. That’s all right, I suppose–because Synecdoche, New York is nothing but one long, gloomy premonition. It’s an excursion into the depths of guilt and regret for moviegoers who find Yom Kippur too airy, a comedy of the sort that Woody Allen might have made if he really were depressed. The night I watched it, one out of three paying customers fled for the exits. The rest of us sat rapt before the genuinely awful truth.

As the first film to be directed by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York is unrestrained in expressing its author’s multifaceted dread of failure, as experienced by a character trapped in worlds within worlds. You’ve seen this situation in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and now you see it with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a less-than-minor theater director in Schenectady. As the story begins, he is already obsessed with age and illness, in despair over the triumphs he hasn’t achieved, dismayed at how quickly time passes. And at this point, he’s still in early middle age, still putting shows before an audience and still living with his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter. He doesn’t know how good he’s got it. Soon the losses and humiliations begin to pile up in fantastic measure, and time’s cantering becomes a full gallop, until he responds by attempting a Gesamtkunstwerk. He reproduces his life, and everything that surrounds it, as a never-ending theatrical rehearsal within a huge warehouse. For the average world-encompassing genius, this would be a self-aggrandizing gesture. For him, it just shrinks his scope of action smaller and smaller.

Brilliantly imagined and perfectly performed, Synecdoche, New York is so heartbroken and strange that it can be compared only to other Charlie Kaufman films–or, perhaps, to a Sci Fi Channel version of Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. I mean that as a compliment and urge you to see it, if you can. The odds are two to one you’ll stay.

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