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NOVEMBER 30, 2008

Unsilent Night

A Christmas Tale director Arnaud Desplechin on Catholics, funnybones, his hometown, and the roles he and star Mathieu Amalric play.

By Mark Jenkins

Opening this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: TRANSPORTER 3. Clicking on that title will take you to

French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin has made six features, which range from the experimental Playing "In the Company of Men" to the English-language, intentionally alienating Esther Kahn. But he's best known for My Sex Life....Or How I Got into an Argument and Kings and Queen, both novelistic ensemble pieces that star Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos. In spirit and structure, these two movies are close to Desplechin's new A Christmas Tale, an earthy fantasia that invokes Shakespeare, Emerson, Nietzsche, and Bergman as it tells of adultery, leukemia, and longstanding family rancor. So it seemed logical to ask the director — in town earlier this month for the local premiere of his latest movie at the American Film Institute's European Union Showcase — if he sees a link between the three films.

I can share your feeling, as a spectator. But as a filmmaker, I can't see that I did them as a continuity. I wouldn't like to make a film where you're obliged to make the previous ones. That belongs to novels, which is great, like Proust. But for film, come on! It's a popular entertainment. Each film has to work for itself.

I don't mean that you have to see them all to understand them, but all three are ensemble works and sort of family stories — even though the first is in academic setting.

It just happened that way. I don't know how. You know, my first film, The Sentinel, was quite odd and slow-paced and abstract. It reached a very small audience. After that, I was afraid of being noble, in a way. So my next film was My Sex Life, which is not noble. Which is so trivial. Was it because I wanted to disappoint all the expectations? [chuckles] It's this sort of game. After doing something provocative, because it was too novel, to make something that would be provocative because it would be too trivial.

Is it fair to see Mathieu Amalric as your alter ago?

I think that's something the spectator brings. And Mathieu and I, we know that. The viewers are seeing something true, but neither Mathieu nor I know what it means.

If I say that Jean-Pierre Leaud is the on-screen alter ego of Francois Truffaut — for sure it's true. He's one of Truffaut's creations.

With Mathieu, it's different. Our relationship started based on the fact that he was also a director. That was fundamental in the beginning. Each time, I have to show Mathieu that the role is not the same one. We've made this commitment never to play the same role twice. I never understood why. I always thought it was a little bit mean, because sometime when you work with other actors, you can do the same role two, three times. But with Mathieu, we've created three alter egos: Paul, Ismael, and now Henri.

In Kings and Queen, he's like a little leprechaun, a charming devil. In A Christmas Tale, he's a massive man. Even physically, he's not the same character anymore. Of course, all his characters have him at their center. But I'm astonished at the range he has. In this movie, what you see is this gigantic chagrin with him, almost a rock. Of sadness.

But Amalric seems to have this ironic outlook that puts him outside the story, in a way that might reflect the director's viewpoint.

Maybe. There's a line I love: "I can't afford the illusion of a self." I can't believe I'm Arnaud Desplechin, and I'm sure Mathieu can't believe he's Mathieu Amalric. We know we don't exist, in a way. We are just characters in a shadowy theater. In life, it seems to me that this is what we are all doing. We are impersonating various characters.

This film is set in Roubaix, your hometown. Does that indicate a personal stake in the story?

In Kings and Queen, there was this little part, which is something like 12 minutes. Suddenly the character escapes and is going to Roubaix, which is a magic territory where anything can happen. After that, back to Paris. So I could say that in this film we decided to take that part and expand it. To me, is place where something like A Midsummer's Night Dream can happen. It's a magic place.

Because you associate it with your childhood?

No. It's so modest as a city that I thought it was the perfect place to set any kind of weird imaginings or dreams. It's humble, so you can say it's anywhere. Precisely because it's not famous, not grandiloquent; it's just a common place.

So there are no associations....

Roubaix is sort of a joke in France. We were trying to find a city in the U.S. that would be the same kind of joke. Duluth? Scranton? Where the vice president is coming from?

It seems to me that Gus Van Sant did a lot of his movies in the same city. I think four of his films are from the same city. Portland?

That's where he lives.

The action happens in Portland. It's a good line for a novel, or a play. Where is Portland? Anywhere. It's just a city.

Junon, the mother, has leukemia, and Henri, the son she hates, is the potential bone marrow donor. Did you use the film's medical procedures to balance its fairy-tale aspects?

Yeah. I could say that. They are putting something in your body, bone marrow, which is really bizarre, and could kill you, even if you are not ill. Suddenly you have a chimera — it's mythological. I tried to be deadly serious about the realism of it, but also to see it as something magic. It's a nightmare for Junon, but it's real too.

In the scene when Henri and Junon bump into each other, she calls him "petit juif" — "little Jew," the French term for "funnybone." Why did you have her call him that?

In French, it's a common expression. Don't you have the same expression in English?

No, it's just "funnybone."

It's odd, because you have Funnyface in the movies. And Henri's fiancee, Faunia, happens to be Jewish. It's just a game with words. We started with Catholic things, just because it's Christmas. When I start to write the movie, I know that all the characters will be Catholic. As soon as all the characters are the same, I start to be bored. So I invented this character, Faunia, who will leave the movie, saying "I don't want to be part of it." I think it's lovely, and the world is wider, if you have characters who can refuse the film itself.

And Henri behaves like the one who doesn't belong to that tribe, that Catholic tribe. So it was also the idea of depicting Catholics — I'm Catholic — as a tribe, and not as being normal. It's not normal to be Catholic; it's quite odd. So I started to play with this idea of confrontations, and the fact that Junon is from this very little city far from Paris, so she's not used to someone different from her. So the tension starts between the two of them.

Later, the father says, "it's a mitzvah," as if he's Jewish, or from a Jewish milieu.

I don't know what other word you could say for "mitzvah." Certain words can't be translated. But there is something around that. One could say that in this family that all the men are Jewish and all the women are Catholic. It's odd, and not realistic. That's the film. It's not realistic, but I hope it's true.

A CHRISTMAS TALE — 2008, 150 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.