Un Conte de Noel (Competition)
"Now that is a movie!" I exclaimed to a friend on exiting this morning's screening of Arnaud Desplechin's Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Story). The bourgeois-dysfunctional-family-comes-together-for-a-holiday setup is one of the hoariest in any medium, but if anybody can conjure something fresh out of it, it's Desplechin, and boy does he ever. This famliy's dysfunction, as suits their creator's temperament and perspective, is at an absolute fever pitch as the picture begins. A funeral oration shot from several majestic angles gives way to a shadow-puppet-enacted precis of this clan's situation—the parent's first son is diagnosed with a wasting disease in his first years; his younger sister's bone marrow, a potential solution, doesn't match; a son is conceived, largely for the purpose of curing the first; his marrow's also a bust; the first son dies, only four years old; the couple have one more son.
And now, half a lifetime later mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) seems to have contracted a similarly wasting disease, and once again bone marrow is called for. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is a melancholic playwright with a frail, perhaps schizophrenic, teenage son. Youngest brother Ivan (Melville Poupad) is a cheery self-made nonentity with a beautiful wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) and two antic sons. And middle brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) is a self-destructive half-maniac whom Elizabeth has essentially banished from the family after bailing him out of his last big jam.
And that, as they say, ain't the half of it.
The creation of such a vivid, individualized group of characters and such a compelling roster of dilemmas is a staggering enough feat. But what makes this movie such a darkly exuberant feast is Desplechin's storytelling. Calling his directorial style "eclectic" simply doesn't do. He has packed himself an almost inexhaustible kit bag of cinematic techniques that he deploys here with an ease that makes his previous film, the incredibly impressive Kings and Queen, look relatively forced. Not only is there not a single dull moment in this two-and-a-half-hour family drama; the film practically teems with ferocious moments, and the novelistic detail offered by Desplechin (here collaborating on the screenplay with longtime writing partner Emmanuel Bourdieu) is always spot-on.
To say Amalric is first among equals here is both possibly accurate and deeply unfair. But he is faced here with the challenge of starting out real crazy, and then having to become crazier still. He does it without ever resorting to cliche or overplaying. The bit wherein he literally falls flat on his face after a wobbly sidewalk dance is an instant classic. But by the same token, I not only haven't even gotten into how great the rest of the cast is, I haven't even named some of the other incredible performers giving their best in this picture—so here are two: Emmanuelle Davos, as the mysterious, sardonic girlfriend Henri brings to the family's Christmas gathering, and Jean-Paul Roussillon as the clan's enigmatic, jazz-loving patriarch. Which leads me into the film's staggering use of music...
But I'm gushing. As I will. Un Conte de Noel sets an extremely high bar for the Competition films to come.
Three Monkeys (Competition)
...that said, you might not be surprised at my expressing disappointment over the latest from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose alienated omantic drama Climates blew me away here in 2006. Three Monkeys (the title refers to the ones who don't speak, see, or hear any evil; thankfully, the film itself never explicitly evokes that image) is also a family drama, also haunted by a dead son, and while it's compellingly performed and often beautifully shot (in the same digital video format Ceylan used for Climates), it's largely commonplace, drear, and claustrophobic. One finds oneself frustrated by the stories Ceylan chooses not to tell—the would-be politician who sets the film's plot into motion seems a more interesting character than anybody in the family whose lives he effects—and by his too-insistent emphases, e.g., a bit involving an idiosyncratic ring tone that's funny and wrenching the first time, still effective the second, and stale the third. The movie's not bad, but it's not terribly special, either.
And in any case, Ceylan's reluctance to explore Turkish politics after bringing them up in the first place may cost him big with this year's Cannes jury. At the jury press conference the other day, its president Sean Penn, no doubt relishing his new-found power, said something along the lines of (I don't have the exact words in front of me, damnit) "We have to teach directors they need to be conscious of the world that we live in." Whatever you say, Kommisar. Although that'll be tough in this case, as all the movies you're judging have, you know, already been made and all.
Is this guy a dick, or what?