Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Christmas Tale

(Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

I'm hereby naming Desplechin the most infuriating filmmaker currently working, and here's why: Because he displays dazzling ambition and talent, works with some of the finest actors in Europe, seems equally adept at words and images, is pushing all kinds of buttons in the world of cinema, and yet - his films are, finally, complete messes.

I haven't figured out if he's a slob, a loon, a coldly calculating scientist of trends, or just another stupendously insecure artist. He is certainly sincere, and enormously talented. So why does he permit himself to overload his movies with tripe, totally swamping those fleeting moments of absolute brilliance? Why does this director, who is ludicrously, almost autistically focused on the possibilities of cinema, spend half his time (or more) chasing down patently stupid ideas? I would call it an open-and-shut case of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, but he's too damn good for that to be true. There's a project here, an almost systematic approach to breaking new ground through restless and radical juxtaposition - one after another after another.

But to what end? I'm more than willing to concede that on a first viewing, plenty of this stuff went over my head. But what I did experience was a freakish mystery - a half-breed of uncompromising art-film and middling melodrama. I don't want to just label Desplechin a smarmy idiot-savant with twice as much formal brilliance as story (and thus, human) sense. But that's the feeling I get. Desultory and silly and finally, with a disregard for truth that feels actually disrespectful - of the actors, of the material, and of the audience.

I get why people are so hot for him. I'm hot for him too - except when I shake myself out of my mesmerized stupor long enough to recognize that he's pulling some seriously jury-rigged bullshit with character and story. It's virtuosity without discipline, and seriously prone to pretentious meandering and self-indulgence. Maybe I need to watch ACT a few more times and then some of it will begin to settle and stop giving me indigestion. But a) that won't happen, and b) I think I've taken all I can from him - lovely ideas, but they found like jewels in a junk store. There's way more useless crap than anyone could ever want, and that just makes me angry.

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