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A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale

“A Christmas Tale” is a strange piece of movie-making, but quite effective for all of that. It turns many conventions on their heads, and does so both with a naturalistic flare and innovative camera work. It is the story of an unruly, dysfunctional family, their squabbles and their secrets, with few, if any, resolutions. It’s not your typical holiday movie. It’s not even a typical holiday movie sending up other holiday movies. It seems without genre, though the director, Arnaud Desplechin, samples from other movies like “Funny Face”, “The Ten Commandments”, and Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He sometimes points his actors at the audience to give soliloquies as well, borrowing yet again from Shakespeare.

Cancer is both a reality and a metaphor in “A Christmas Tale”, but is used lightly, strangely enough. Lightly, like a coat that can be taken off, even though it can’t be. The audience discovers, soon enough, that this family doesn’t play by the usual rules, even though it goes about its day in a “normal” enough fashion at first glance. We get to spend enough time watching the generations of the Vuillard family interacting to move beyond that first glance.

The characters in the movie don’t seem to fear cancer, nor do they make it into some great pivot point in their lives. The death of one sibling (Joseph) at six years old takes place offstage, is a memory, perhaps fading, but marks much of the rest of the film. The Vuillard family seems, on the surface at least, unaffected by this tragedy, almost detached from it, especially the parents. Though at least two in the family suffer from physical and mental maladies that appear to be echoes of the original disease.

The film has an excellent ensemble cast. It’s almost democratic in its story telling, as Milan Kundera might say. It has multiple points of view, layered, crossing time and place. It is not always easy to pick out the protagonists. Many of the characters are key, essential, for a moment, then the film moves on. But one remains always the matriarch. Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the mother of Joseph who died, and Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who live. Elizabeth hates Henri, and banished him for six years prior to the Christmas gathering. We never learn why she hates him, though we get some clues. Junon doesn’t seem to care for Henri too much, either, and is frank about that. Henri seems to take this in stride as a normal thing, having a mother who doesn’t much care for him. They both seem to like each other for realizing they don’t.

Junon discovers that she has cancer, and that she needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. She also learns that she doesn’t have a great chance regardless, and that the transplant could actually kill the donor. She decides to go through with it anyway, and the only compatible donors are Henri (the irony!) and Paul, her grandson. Paul is, along with Henri, suffering from a disease. His is mental and involves hallucinations. Henri just seems completely screwed up, physically and mentally, though he’s actually “okay” with it.

The Christmas gathering is perhaps their last as a family. Or perhaps the first in a long time and harbinger of more. Either way, I enjoyed spending a couple of hours watching this strange, funny, dysfunctional family, with its secrets, hatreds, indifference, turn things gracefully, clumsily, naturally upside down.

 

A Christmas Tale

 

 

The Flight of the Red Balloon

The Flight of the Red Balloon

The Flight of the Red Balloon
The Flight of the Red Balloon

Just watched Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wonderful film, The Flight of the Red Balloon. Set in a glowing, shadowy, geometric and abstract Paris, it stars Juliette Binoche as Suzanne, and Simon Iteanu as her son Simon. Simon’s nanny, a young film student from China, is played by Song Fang. I’m not sure who plays the red flotation device.

The film is a homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, but doubles and echoes and adds new layers. The nanny shoots film footage in Paris, incorporating her new charge, Simon, and his hovering red friend and we see both the internal and the external. We watch the film within the film and think about what that hovering balloon may be pointing to. The freedom, the joy, the hope of childhood and the things we can’t reach.

Nearly every frame is an abstract painting in and of itself. Hou utilizes interiors with precision, throwing rectangles, squares and diagnonals constantly against each other to great effect. He is a master with glass and mirrors, doubling what we see, adding depth, juxtaposing more stories within stories.

All of this is subtle in the best way. Non-contrived, unselfconscious, natural.

There is not much plot. Suzanne works in a puppet troupe, doing all of the voices, and Binoche makes this look easy and real, a true part of her reality. Simon and Song spend their days together, when he’s not in school, getting to know each other little by little, warming up to each other with few words and small gestures. The only real conflict of the movie is that between Suzanne and one of her tenants, Marc (Hippolyte Girardot), who apparently hasn’t paid rent in a year or more. This conflict gives Binoche the chance to contrast her obvious calm and quiet devotion to her son, with a ferocity toward others she thinks are out to take advantage of her. It is a rare film that can make every day life, without heightened melodrama, something you want to wait for, follow, and focus on.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is the scene in which Simon’s class visits the Musee d’ Orsay and stops to talk about Félix Vallotton’s Le Ballon.

Le Ballon, by Felix Vallotton. 1899
Le Ballon, by Felix Vallotton. 1899

 I loved how the teacher was able to get the children to discuss the painting, discover some of its hidden qualities, and talk about light and shadow. Initially caught up by the discussion, Simon soon spies his red balloon floating high overhead, leans back, and follows its flight with the faintest look of joy and pride. If I had made this emotionally rich though understated film, I would be full of joy and pride as well.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen’s new film takes a sharp turn. It’s a departure from most of his other films in that neuroses is foreign, literally foreign, and perhaps more understandable in that context. The most overtly neurotic character, Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz, is the violently passionate ex-wife of the artist Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. The two main characters, Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, are mildly conflicted in comparison. The two American tourists, spending their summer in Spain, seem quite “normal” in comparison to the hot-blooded Spanish duo who can’t live with or without each other. And that contrast between the American version of normality and the Spanish version of living for the moment, a sort of tremendismo for artists, a ménage à trois for the Picasso in all of us, is the heart of the movie.

 

 

When Allen declines to star in the films he writes and directs, there is usually one character who takes on his mannerisms, his erratic speech, nervous ticks and neurotic outbursts. In this film, Allen puts that largely aside, though Rebecca Hall’s Vicky is probably the closest thing to a stand-in. But she also evolves the most of anyone in the movie, changing from contentedly Middle Class and a bit uptight, to someone ready to chuck it all to the tune of Spanish guitars and Bardem’s transparent charm. Woody is mostly Woody throughout his movies. Scarlett Johannson’s Cristina, on the other hand, starts the film as the more free spirited of the two friends, lives out her ideology of love in real time, and may or may not be thrown off that path when all is said and done.

In Allen’s movies about New York, we’re often left with a feeling that his world is not a place we would necessarily choose if we had that choice. Too stressful, in a haltingly funny sort of way. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the sights and sounds of Avilés, Oviedo and Barcelona draw us in, make us want to stay in that warm night air, hear the flamenco guitar, eat the local cuisine, and tour the masterpieces of the past and present. It’s as if Allen has taken a vacation from the States himself, shows us the life of ex-pats, and does not encourage departure any time soon. I think he’s saying that Spain does not make people neurotic (unlike New York), passionate, all-consuming love does, and when you’re surrounded by the wealth of history, art, music and the clash of civilizations that was Medieval Spain, what’s a little neuroses between friends.

 

 

Blueberries and Brandi

Blueberries and Brandi

 

Several things blended together for me today like ice cream and warm pie. And Brandi. And Day for Night. And a call from North Carolina about a trip to Italy.

In the bright sunshine, thinking again about the night scenes in My Blueberry Nights. At night, thinking about the bright sunshine in the Thelma and Louise section of Wong Kar-wai’s film, while I listened to Brandi Carlile’s The Story and wondered if he knew anything about her. Because her music fit much of that, and her own persona fit Natalie Portman’s character, somewhat. There is something uniquely American about a tomboyish girl with a guitar, singing lonesome songs, throwing in a yodel or two for the desert, hoping for more than echoes. Brandi Carlile sings about friendship, about offering friendship and support, powerfully, but from a deep and lonely place. The kind of friendship and loyalty only the lonely can really touch.

Not the queen of the prom. Not the head cheerleader. Perhaps just the guardian of the highway.

Her song, “Happy”, strikes me as most in tune with My Blueberry Nights. Elizabeth (Norah Jones) sends her postcards back east to Jeremy (Jude Law). Brandi Carlile sends a musical postcard back home as well. And the tone, the way she sings it, add depth and contradictions to the lyrics:

I’m happy
Can’t you see
I’m alright
But I miss you Amber Lee

My Blueberry Nights was ultimately about that. Intimate moments between strangers who lack happy, giggling hordes of friends. Single people clinging to other single people, alone in the midst of cities and deserts. Losing them sometimes. Not wanting to let go. It’s harder to let go of one person when no one else is left. Easier to let go when life pulsates all around you and you actually fit in with that pulsating life.

But Art can give dignity to all of that. To be alone together. And music tells the story and lifts that story above the banal, the everyday, and then grounds it deep within the earth. Yes, Brandi Carlile is earthy. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing. As good as it gets, in fact. And, like the earth, she sings of pain and misery and overcoming that and how she is dying to be closer to her lover and her friend. I find myself rooting hard for her, hoping she’ll find her way back home again, so she can sing about that instead, about homecomings. The look in her lover’s eyes when she weaves her nostalgia into sweet acoustic notes. From a better place, an ending worthy of Hollywood or Hong Kong.

But starting from that happy place, where everyone is popular and satisfied is . . . boring. Not sure why, but you have to go through the muck and the dust and the loss and the loneliness to actually savor connections between people . . . to respect those connections . . . to cherish them. Contrast and context are everything.

Day for Night. That was another part of my Blueberry Monday. The great Francois Truffaut film. Perhaps the best film ever made about filmmaking. Aside from the obvious meta-aspects of a movie about a movie, it also dealt with loneliness and the way we humans too often expect far more of one another than makes much sense, given our propensity for bumbling and selfishness. And chaos. Selfish, chaotic bumbling. And masks. Which is natural in a film about actors, starring actors. With many faces. We can’t see through them to the other side, usually. But we can count on seeing replacements. New faces on old faces and so on.

The title itself comes from a technique used to save a buck or two in the process. Filming night scenes during the daytime, using filters and other mechanisms. The audience sees one thing while the filmmakers see another. Of course, the entire process is like that. Sleight of hand writ large. All the while one of the leads, Alphonse, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, runs around the film set asking if women are magic. Everyone’s magic, of course, in the movies.

On the film set of the film within the film, a soap opera rages, with new couplings and broken hearts, and everyone seems to want to leave for someplace else. It’s amazing the film ever gets made. Especially when tragedy befalls one of the leads. The Play’s the Thing. The show must go on, and all of that.

Contrasts: Truffaut is a master, and Day for Night is one of his best films. But I found myself comparing the visuals — the colors, the textures, the composition of each frame — with Wong Kar-wai’s work and found it wanting. Obviously, both directors have a different aesthetic and concentrate on different things. And the director from China made his film more than thirty years after Truffaut made his, and had all the advantages of new production techniques because of that. Still . . . from a purely artistic point of view, I prefer WKW. Luckily, I don’t have to choose between the two.

I also found myself wondering how Brandi Carlile would react to that crazy crew and the fast pace of life in Day for Night. My guess is she would grab her guitar and hit the highway, head west into the sunset.

 

Rimbaud: Vagabond Blues Redux

Rimbaud: Vagabond Blues Redux

Henri Fantin-Latour's By the Table. 1872. Paris, Musée d'Orsay.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s By the Table. 1872. Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

 A couple of recent movies got me to think again about Rimbaud and his effects. Movies have a funny way of doing that to me. They often make me think about writers, artists, and musicians, even if the movie isn’t really about them. Oblique references stimulate a new ordering, a new attempt to find links, connections, similarities. Hopefully new connections. New patterns. New orderings of anxiety and influence. Sometimes, they don’t even mention this or that artist, but they send me there anyway.

The two movies:

Todd Haynes’  I’m Not There, which has already been mentioned on these pages, and Poison Friends, Emmanuel Bourdieu’s 2006 film about student passions and betrayals.

In the first, one of the pseudo-Dylans calls himself Rimbaud. All of the characters have a certain enfant-terrible aspect to them. A version of youthful misery, audacity, fire, passion and defensiveness we all felt at one time in our lives. A wonderful mix of supreme confidence and bravura bordering on the irrational, with a woe-is-me quality of eternal persecution by the Furies to spice things up.

Supremely self-assured at times, filled with wonder and awe at our own genius and avant-gardedness, we certainly were a wondrous mess. But the arc of joy that results from that mess can sometimes lead to cults and worshippers, to glorious derangement of all senses, and . . . of course, illumination.

Blake’s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

In the case of Rimbaud and the Pseudo-Dylans, that road took them on a journey as varied as hobo trains across America, ships to Indonesia, Cyprus and Africa, and planes across the globe.

In the second film, the Rimbaudian character is a reversal in a sense. A flip-side. He’s a year older than his new friends, their mentor, their defender. Unlike Rimbaud’s dynamic with the older poet, Verlaine, the character of Morney plays the trailblazer for his younger friends, tells them what to read, to never, ever write, who to date and where to go. He’s a Rimbaud who stays in France, pretending that he journeys across the sea to America, pretending that he’s still the enfant-terrible, the king of the Sorbonne, the beloved of his teachers and the world of literature as a whole. Beloved for his passionate commitment against literature and all writing, as he attempts his literary thesis to gain access to America and its perceived riches.

A fighter against the status quo, against convention, Morney is trapped in the conundrum of refusal. If he follows the logic of his own fight, he disappears and his revolution ends. Perhaps that is why the lies appear. And the betrayals. And the eventual humiliation.

Rimbaud, of course, did leave France. In a big way. No half-measures for the author of Une Saison en Enfer. He fought his perception of convention and his former self by giving up poetry for gun running and the coffee trade. His own refusal, his rebellion is the stuff of legend, his demise at the age of thirty-seven a tragedy. For Rimbaud, his family, and Art. In Marseille, he almost made it home again.

Vagabonds draw us in. Perhaps it’s because they take the kinds of risks we only dream about taking. The kinds of risks we feel certain we have the courage to take in the light of day. Oftentimes, knowing we could do this or that is enough. For some, for Rimbaud and the pseudo-Dylans, challenging the self to the extremes of endurance is a necessity. For Morney, talking about the journey as if he made it — albeit with charisma and passion — almost gets him there.

 

Boris Vian: I’m Not There.

Boris Vian: I’m Not There.

 
Not sure exactly why, but while watching Todd Haynes’ wonderful movie about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, I thought about Boris Vian.

It’s a truly original, bold, surreal, funny and alarming movie about the many lives of Bob Dylan, fictional lives, characters that might have been Dylan or that Dylan might have been. All the acting is wonderful, but I especially like Cate Blanchett’s performance. It’s probably from her disjointed, disconnected, oddly profound and nonsensical repartee that I thought of Vian.

Boris Vian was an amazing artist. A novelist, poet, actor, engineer and musician, chiefly remembered for his novels. I’ve read two. Mood Indigo and Heartsnatcher. Both are violently funny, raw, dadaist, surreal and absurd. They are also disjointed, disconnected, and nonsensical. In a very good way.
Mood Indigo is an earlier translation. I’ll have to read the latest incarnation, Foam of the Daze (translated by Brian Harper), from Tam Tam Books. Looks to be much closer to the original, L’Écume des Jours, and has been approved by the Vian estate.
Vian is sometimes associated with the term, pataphysics, which is a robust and madcap parody of scientific theory and methods, coined by Alfred Jarry. A good resource for all things pataphysical is here.
Was surprised to find this video on Youtube. Vian singing . . .


Boris Vian died at the tragically young age of thirty-nine. What new wonders could he have created, with a longer life, more time, more health?