Arnaud Desplechin, Master of the Unexpected

When Jean Eustache committed suicide almost exactly 17 years ago (November 3, 1981 to be exact), I remember thinking that his act seemed to write a premature end to a promising split-off from the nouvelle vague. La Maman et la putain (1973) clearly was a polemic aimed at the self-satisfaction that was beginning to afflict Eustache's immediate predecessors and role models, and Mes petites amoreuses (1974) seemed to suggest another direction for young French filmmakers. I'm shocked, looking at his IMDB listing, to see how many subsequent films and television episodes Eustache directed that have never been shown here, but regardless of those unfamiliar works, his death closed out a fruitful career. Who would take on the role he seemed to have carved out for himself? Leos Carax seemed a likely successor, but his filmography is sparse, with long gaps between 1986 and 1991 and, most recently, no new features since 1999.

Enter Arnaud Desplechin, whose first feature film,
La vie des morts (Life of the Dead), was released in 1991, and whose latest, Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), opened today in NYC. Desplechin studied at IDHEC and worked as cinematographer and screenwriter for his friend Eric Rochant before striking out on his own. I first became aware of him with his third feature, Comment je me suis dispute . . . (ma vie sexual) (How I Got Into an Argument . . . My Sex Life), and I remember distinctly that I thought, here's a worthy successor to Eustache, someone who "gets" the nature of the nouvelle vague, both its strengths and weaknesses, is influenced by the old Cahiers mob, but has his own voice. Like all of his subsequent films, Argument is, by turns, funny, poignant and frequently surprising. And he's been like that ever since.

Desplechin has his own informal stock company. Emmanuelle Devos has appeared in almost all of his films, Mathieu Amalric, Emmaneulle Salinger, Marianne Dernicourt and his brother Fabrice Desplechin in several. You can chart his shifting interests and concerns by tracing the variety of characters they portray. Amalric, in particular, has always struck me as a stand-in for the writer-director. His central concern is the confining, even stifling, nature of family ties, usually examined through generic situations that are just short of hackneyed. Yet he always manages to find a twist in his films that turns our genre expectations inside out. Desplechin's emotional universe is more complex, his moral code more nuanced, than that of most contemporary directors of family melodrama or chamber comedy. Whatever his relationship to Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, et al., he is definitely the anti-Sundance filmmaker par excellence. And thank God for that.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Un conte de Noel. The plot, as is so often the case with Desplechin, is complicated, a sophisticated mixture of family melodrama and farce that turns on the revelation that Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch of a scattered family, has been diagnosed with cancer and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. Thus, her family comes together for a Christmas holiday filled with recriminations and painful memories. The family history includes mental illness, financial improprieties and the usual ill will among siblings. Desplechin juggles the myriad of plotlines deftly, helped immeasurably by Emmanuel Bordieu, his frequent writing partner.

But what really raises Un conte de Noel above the fall’s run of intelligent family dramas is what makes Desplechin such a challenging and exciting filmmaker in the first place, his ability to shift gears suddenly, to alter radically our perception of his characters and, in doing so, to make us call into question our own all-to-automatic reactions to narrative situations. His previous fiction film, Rois et reine (Kings and a Queen), is structured entirely around that premise, with our understanding of the characters’ motives undermined brilliantly. The new film works in more complex ways, with our perceptions of the positions of the family and their closest friends subtly altered. In the end, one could say that even the worst of them is redeemed in ways both large and small, and in that respect Desplechin resembles not so much the great filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, but their cherished godfather, Jean Renoir.