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It’s Clarity: A Christmas Tale

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It’s Clarity: A Christmas Tale

Early critical response to A Christmas Tale repeatedly insisted that here’s the proverbial Desplechin film for people who don’t like Desplechin, in the same way that Kent Jones claimed Regular Lovers was “a Garrel film for people who don’t know or don’t like other Garrel films.” Except Jones didn’t mean it as harshly as it sounded (he wrote the liner notes for the DVD, after all), and saying Desplechin’s film is more accessible than his past work should in no way imply compromise. A Christmas Tale doesn’t synthesize everything Desplechin’s been working on since 1991’s La Vie Des Morts—how could any one film capture the scope of Desplechin’s relentlessly schizophrenic interests?—but it’s the most coherent alchemy of Morts, My Sex Life and Kings And Queen we’re ever likely to get. It’s not dilution; it’s clarity.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the seasonal, unsurprisingly acrimonious reunion of the Vuillard clan: cancer-stricken mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve), gravel-voiced paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon), alcoholic son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), golden child Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), depressive Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), and a host of assorted partners, cousins and hangers-on. It’s a family reunion in more ways than one: all the above-named players (minus Poupaud) are veterans of at least one Desplechin film. Nearing 50, Desplechin has found an ensemble cast that, like Ford’s favored players, should keep him going for a long time yet. He’s daring to reference his own filmography extensively for the first time, moving beyond thematic continuity: the pleasure of seeing Amalric and his long-suffering My Sex Life girlfriend Emmanuelle Devos reunited (this time with the balance of power firmly in her hands) is not to be underestimated. There’s also the kick of seeing one Paul Dedalus (Emile Berling) as Henri’s nephew: Paul Dedalus, of course, was Amalric’s name in My Sex Life, and the transference of neuroticism from one generation to the next is befitting.

Other references have more to offer than the (undeniable but indescribable) pleasure of watching a group of talented people age together on-screen in a world of their making. Consider a brief shot (five seconds long) in which Desplechin crams in three allusions: Devos rounds a corner in a museum, coming across Deneuve sitting in rapt contemplation of a painting. Denueve’s bright red jacket and gaze easily conjure up Vertigo; the upper-right corner of the frame shows a part of the painting, a swan. Desplechin’s long-standing fascination with mythology reminds us of Leda and the swan; that, in turn, takes us back to Kings And Queen, whose repeated references to the myth fascinated its admirers (and maddened detractors) without anyone agreeing on what it meant.

I’m still not sure what it meant in Kings And Queen, but I think I’ve finally cracked the mystery of Desplechin’s fascination with myth. Consider first the names on display (Juno(n), Devos’ Faunia): Desplechin’s interests are eclectic, but rarely random provocations designed to frustrate audiences. Early on, Henri announces that he’s “part of a myth, but I don’t know what myth means.” Well, for starters: it means one story that’s part of an enveloping fabric of hundreds of others, a story that might appear bizarre, arcane and unrelatable without context. (Such as, e.g., a story about a god-swan raping a woman.) And this is, unfortunately, the way families work as well: they’re tight-knit groups of people who long ago failed to understand why they turned out the way they did in relation to each other, relying on shorthand that confuses outsiders as much as themselves. Why does Elizabeth hate Henri as much as she does? Neither one of them knows.

But there’s another thing: a myth is something that resonates because it will not go away. Which is what A Christmas Tale (and, ultimately, Desplechin’s filmography) seems to be about. The typical home-for-the-holidays family movie has an easy, comfortable arc to deliver catharsis on schedule: first everyone pretends nothing is wrong, then everyone explodes, cries and reconciles, having lanced and salved their long-simmering resentments. A Christmas Tale begins in a state of naked, open animosity and never heals. The point isn’t that all will be well after things are brought out into the open; the point is that things will never be OK, and once you acknowledge that, you can begin to live with the trauma for the rest of your life. Late in the film, cousin Simon (Laurent Capelutto), confessing to a long-deferred love, insists that everything he does—dressing, talking, whatever—is for his lost love. “My painting is for myself,” he clarifies. Desplechin’s familial trauma is constant, but his art is for himself.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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