Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Daring Director

Every Minute, Four Ideas: The Films of Arnaud Desplechin
November 5-13, 2008
IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas

A Christmas Tale
Written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Almaric, Chiara Mastroianni, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos
Opens November 14, 2008

Director Desplechin on the set of A Christmas Tale
Almaric (right) in My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument
The films of Arnaud Despleschin are as close to immersing oneself in a great novel as any filmmaker working today. Although he’s only made seven feature films since his 1991 debut, France’s Arnaud Desplechin has become one of the world’s most highly acclaimed film directors, thanks to his uncompromising, intelligent studies of warts-and-all characters. The IFC Center’s series Every Minute, Four Ideas: The Films of Arnaud Desplechin showcases a director who obviously makes films to please himself—and if viewers want to come along for the ride, that’s an added bonus.

Desplechin has made many types of films: a spy thriller, a period drama, a melodramatic soap opera (his new film, A Christmas Tale, which opens the day after this series ends) and even a cinematic essay about the difficulties of filming a play. But at the heart of his art are two long character studies.

The three-hour My Sex Life ... or How I Got into an Argument (1996) is his best film to date, a most revealing look at a group of twenty-somethings who are finding out what makes relationships work—even as their own are continuous demonstrations of infidelity and romantic failure—that’s among the most intimate "epic" films ever made. Fond of long takes, the director allows many scenes to play out in what seems to be real time; in order to pull this off successfully, any filmmaker has to trust his actors, and Desplechin has several of the best at his beck and call, led by his leading man—and, often, his cinematic alter ego—Mathieu Almaric has an uncanny ability to wring ever more minute gradations of emotion from his astonishingly mobile face. My Sex Life ... is an exhilarating, often exhausting ride through the lives of all-too-real characters who talk far differently than they act.

Kings and Queen (2004) has many of the Desplechin trademarks that illuminated My Sex Life: the presence of Almaric and that excellent actress Emmanuelle Devos, an imposing length (2-1/2 hours), and imaginative analysis of several characters. Yet, the problematic Kings and Queen is only fitfully satisfying, mainly because the two plots, when brought together after a lengthy buildup, don’t resonate as well as they do separately. Although Kings and Queen rarely reaches My Sex Life’s ecstatic highs, it underscores its director as a bold cinematic risk-taker.

Desplechin’s second feature is 1992’s La Sentinelle, a 140-minute mystery that continually flirts with–but never succumbs to–its genre’s clich├ęs. Concentratating its energy on a medical student’s psychological changes once he finds himself in a bewildering situation that begins when he finds a shrunken human head in his luggage.

Desplechin’s lone English language film to date is 2000’s Esther Kahn, a beautifully detailed journey back to early 20th century London, where a young Jewish girl desperately wants to become a stage actress. There is much to admire in this ambitious film–including Howard Shore’s ingenious music and the stunning set design–but Esther Kahn is ultimately insufficient as drama and character study. Most damaging is Summer Phoenix as Esther, the kind of egregious miscasting that buries any well-intentioned film.

1991’s La Vie des Morts, the director’s 54-minute debut, also introduces several of the actors who would become regular members of his cinematic repertory company—aside from Emmanuelle Devos, there’s also Marianne Denicourt—while the 2007 documentary, L’Aimee, looks back to Desplechin’s family memories as his father plans to sell their beloved home. The rarely-seen Playing “In the Company of Men” continues Desplechin’s ongoing experimentation. This 2003 cinematic essay on the twin illusions of theater and film, from Edward Bond’s play, uses Paul Weller’s pop songs as a comment on the action.

It’s difficult to explain why Desplechin’s latest film, A Christmas Tale, ends up woefully short of his very best work. Although this melodrama about several generations of a French family for which “dysfunction” is too kind a description runs less than 2-1/2 hours—and so is short by the director’s standards—it recycles so many manipulative, ill-considered climaxes that it feels like it drags on far longer. For the first time in any of his films, Despleschin cheats, using shortcuts to explain (or explain away) these unlikeable, unlikely people: their predictable verbal and physical battles replace plausible character development and an honest examination of these relationships.

As usual, Desplechin’s cast is led by the always remarkable Mathieu Amalric, with equally formidable acting also turned in by the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos, and even the usually unreliable Chiara Mastroianni. But they cannot overcome their writer-director’s rare misstep.

A Christmas Tale might not be Desplechin at his most memorable, but he is one of the few directors today whose failures still merit our attention. And so we await this singularly gifted artist’s next—and, let’s hope, better—film.

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