Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Together (A Christmas Tale and Up)


Are the French now making American movies better than Americans are? Last year, they gave us the taut "wrong man" thriller Tell No One (based, fittingly, on an American novel). Now, A Christmas Tale takes the dysfunctional family home-for-the-holidays to a higher level than The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays or countless other half-assed dramedies ever dreamed of. Superficially, the members of the Vuillard family may sound familiar: mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) maintains a stoic reserve while dying of leukemia; father Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) weathers tragedy with gentle humor, loyalty and warmth; big sister Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) is a successful playwright yet a frazzled mother of suicidal son Paul (Emile Berling); middle child Henri (Mathieu Almaric in a remarkable, propulsive performance) is a forever-in-debt gadabout and cad; and the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), is happily married to Sylvia (Chiara Mastioanni), who secretly harbors a mutual attraction with Ivan's cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). Like the Tenenbaums, they return home as adults who haven't fully outgrown their resentments, insecurities and desires -- all heightened by Junon's search for a bone marrow donor among them.

After an hour of borderline soap-opera theatrics and unnervingly deadpan humor, with another ninety minutes to go, I was leery that A Christmas Tale was going to wear me out. Yet the movie begins to work an almost imperceptible magic. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin mixes a naturalistic style with sudden flourishes that never feel out of place. Characters talk directly to the camera or provide voiceovers that offer clues to their deepest thoughts and feelings, but not everything is spelled out for us. The film's central mystery -- Elizabeth's loathing for her brother Henri, whom she banished for five years -- is at once self-evident and maddeningly unexplained. Their entirely subtextual relationship is balanced nicely by the hearts-on-their-sleeve Ivan/Sylvia/Simon triangle, which builds to a surprisingly mature and joyful consummation. (Imagine the histrionics and/or hijinks in a Hollywood version.)

Desplechin introduces themes so off-handedly you're not even aware of their presence until near the end, when Junon finds a potential donor and says, half-jokingly, that she's "taking back what's mine." A Christmas Tale is about the give-and-take between parents and children, between siblings, between all blood relations. Elizabeth sees Henri (rather excessively) as evil -- a parasite returning to devour his host. Desplechin shows us that the truth is much more complicated; yet in one of his closing images, an astonishing close-up of Henri's eyes, he suggests it's there if we dare to look.
          

After a brief misfire with Cars, Pixar has returned cannier than ever at branding quality more than actually delivering it. Like WALL-E, Up was hailed as a towering masterwork before anyone actually saw it, and anyone who begged to differ was the type who likes to steal babies and kick puppies. (They've learned from Uncle Walt well.) The company's predominant techno-boys (gender emphasis intended) are such wizards at what they do nobody bothers to notice that their storytelling prowess has only two gears -- manic zaniness and heartfelt schmaltz, forever shifted and never blended. 

The first half of Up is, like WALL-E, about its protagonist's lonely life of solitude; and I might have been more affected by the montage of Carl and his wife's happy marriage up to her death if I hadn't read about it beforehand in twenty-five reviews. The second half, where Carl tries to fulfill her dream of living in South America by taking flight in a balloon-powered house with a (yawn) kiddie stowaway on board, doesn't embarrassingly implode like the third act of WALL-E did. The movie remains lovely to look at and shows off Pixar's knack for sight gags: I laughed at the talking dogs and giant bird even as I never stopped wondering what the hell they were doing in this story. Up is ultimately pretty thin stuff; and for all its hot air about adventure and dreams, as oddly impersonal as nearly all their other films. (The exceptions are Brad Bird's, which have other problems.) When Carl pulls his floating house through the jungle, my mind left his limp narrative and leaped to memories of Fitzcarraldo and the thought that the mad, bug-eyed Klaus Kinski was more fantastical than anything Pixar could ever concoct.

5 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

On Up ...

I'd agree with you that it's thin. But I don't know that I'd say "impersonal," though maybe I miss your meaning.

For my money, the best films in the Pixar series remain Ratatouille and WALL-E (the latter has some crashes, yes, but also some incredible high points). I still don't understand the love people have for The Incredibles. Just. Don't. Get. It.

Craig said...

By impersonal, I mean that nearly all of Pixar's films feel like they're being made by committee. The trailers for their movies even emphasize this, promoting not only the movie but all the artists and technicians plugging away at their keyboards behind the scenes. (I can imagine this marketing ploy for live-action films: "Go see Precious...because everyone who made it worked so hard!!!") I don't detect a guiding sensibility -- beyond making profits -- the way I did with Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox or Brad Bird's Ratatouille, which I agree is probably the best of the bunch.

And I agree that Bird's The Incredibles (with the possible exception of the insipid Cars) may be the worst. Visually I think it's a surprisingly ugly movie, and the thematic problems were already thoroughly conveyed in your and Ed's conversation. Why exactly is the son supposed to hold back in the 100-meter dash again? I don't get it either.

Steven Santos said...

I know that my feelings about Pixar films are on the opposite end of yours. But I don't get the impersonal charge leveled against them. Yes, their movies come together with a crew of artists and technicians, as do all films, particularly animated ones.
And do you really think "Up" with its elderly protagonist would have been the product of a typical Hollywood story committee?

Although I like the earlier Pixar films, I do believe the recent ones have distinguished each of the directors from one another much better. Speaking as someone who hasn't cared much for many other animated films (since they were often formulaic to me), Pixar actually makes animated films I can relate to on some level and often understand how to tell stories visually, which is so rare these days that it makes me appreciate them more.

I guess we can say someone like Wes Anderson had a more stronger directorial hand in "Fox". I felt that movie was clever and humorous, but I didn't really care a great deal about what was going on and the film has already faded from my mind. I can't really say it's more personal than "Up". I think a lot of people mistook the hand-crafted visuals of "Fox" as believing the entire film was anything more than another Anderson trifle.

A character trying to deal with the passing of time and the death of his wife I can take more to heart than a smug fox being, to be honest, a pain in the ass.

I do agree with you on "A Christmas Tale". I saw both this and "Kings and Queen" for the first time late last year and added Desplechin to the list of directors making the kind of films Woody Allen doesn't have the ambition to make anymore. I loved the film's refusal to define the characters with pop psychology and to allow the family's various relationships to be messier at the film's conclusion.

Craig said...

And do you really think "Up" with its elderly protagonist would have been the product of a typical Hollywood story committee?

Very true. But I think had Pixar been genuinely committed to Carl's story they wouldn't have brought in the kid, the bird, and the dogs for box-office insurance. I understand the need to compromise -- they're not making Ikiru, after all -- I just didn't find those elements tied thematically into the narrative as cohesively as they should have been.

Additionally, I'm convinced that Cars was a key turning point for Pixar in terms of taking pains to ensure critical insurance. (Though a bewildering majority still liked that one.) Their three films since have all made feints toward "art," with varying degrees of success; yet to hear the critics tell it you'd think these movies were all chestnuts for the ages, rather than well-crafted though predictable trips down Joseph Campbell lane. I seem to even recall comparisons of Up to Ikiru, now that I think about it. In both highbrow and populist terms, they've got their bases covered.

I don't hate Up, or really any of Pixar's films, let me clear. Most are decent entertainments and one or two are a little more. What I want to see -- especially now that Pixar has the cache to do it -- is something truly adventurous. As things stand, it seems hard for them to stay focused on the story when they've got one eye on the critics and the other on the audience.

I do agree with you on "A Christmas Tale". I saw both this and "Kings and Queen" for the first time late last year and added Desplechin to the list of directors making the kind of films Woody Allen doesn't have the ambition to make anymore. I loved the film's refusal to define the characters with pop psychology and to allow the family's various relationships to be messier at the film's conclusion.

I'm very high on A Christmas Tale and thought Mathieu Amalric gave one of the great performances of the past ten years. (Sad he's most famous for playing the wimpiest Bond villain ever in Quantum of Solace.) Kings and Queen is up there in my Netflix queue.

Disney Cars Toys said...

I love Pixar's Movies - though at first screening , Wall-E Plot was indeed too flat but i really liked it at the second viewing when my hopes weren't as high.
Disney Cars did do well in the merchandising aspect but the story and enviornment have too many holes. There are no people around and still you see a world fit for humans & built by humans.