Directed By: Arnaud Desplechin
Written By: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Produced By: Pascal Cauchetieux
Cast: Catherine Denevue, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Cosigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Puopaud
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 151 minutes
Review Date: December 17, 2010
Alas, a film that has almost nothing to do with its title. Relevant still, though, as an ironic nod to the audience which I assume will either love of loathe this film. I found it to be, in equal measures, both astoundingly brilliant and frustrating. It’s shot with such a lax style but tells a tale so profoundly layered and immersive, the contradiction becomes somewhat startling. It’s like being thrust into the dead of winter with nothing but your drawers on: Harsh and cold, but absolutely unforgettable.
The film stars a slew of fluent French speakers, all remarkable in their roles. There isn’t one character in this film that is unnecessary, and all could easily warrant their own narrative. Though considered an ensemble film, it revolves around the aristocratic Junon (Catherine Denevue), who runs the household with soft-spoken assuredness. She has an air about her that demands respect, but inside, her ambivalence is taking full control. Having been recently diagnosed with an exceedingly rare case of some genetic blood disorder too complicated to describe, she knows not whether to treat it or bite the bullet. Christmas is near, and her large family decides to test themselves to see if they are compatible marrow donors.
There is the eternally depressed Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny), who shares no rhyme or reason to the origin of her deficit, but instead just accepts that she’s meant to feel this way. Her son, Paul (Emile Berling), doesn’t help matters by suffering from minor psychosis. Her two brothers, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), could not be more different. Elizabeth loves Ivan, but in a default sort of way. He does not take or add from the allegorical table. Henri, on the other hand, she finds to be an intolerable nuisance. Having bailed him out from bankruptcy a half decade prior, she has chosen to banish him from her life and is somewhat shocked when he returns for this dreary Christmas. Last but not least, there is Junon’s husband, Abel (a fantastic Jean-Paul Roussillon), who is angered with his wife at her refutation of treatment. With two family members who are compatible (Paul and Henri, inconveniently), what is her deal? Can the family keep it together under one roof?
These are but a few of the many story lines told in this tale. That’s where the film’s greatest strengths and weaknesses lie. In telling a tale so layered and fresh, director Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film that is wholly engrossing and had me completely immersed. At two and a half hours, I’d say that’s quite an accomplishment. The problem, though, is that, despite the fascinating characters, their individual arcs aren’t fully developed. It makes for an ending that is purposefully ambiguous but inadvertently unsatisfying.
It’s too bad, because this is a really great film. The style is absolutely essential and should be used as a benchmark for the study on modernizing the classical style. With direct addresses to the audience and the use of the iris, the film almost has the appeal of a live play, but the superb editing reminds you that you are in fact watching a meticulous film. Though, at times, too meticulous. Henri and Junon, in a pivotal scene, sit on the porch swing and nonchalantly discuss that they hate each other. It’s as if they’ve reached their threshold, so tired of maintaining their status quo of hate that they choose to give up. This is kind of what this film feels like, in the end. Still, give it a shot for the first two hours.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.