"We don't know ourselves, we knowledgeable people -- we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there's good reason for that. We've never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we'd discover our own selves? With justice it's been said that 'Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.' Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures -- collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to 'bring something home.' As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call 'experience' -- which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we've been 'missing the point.'
"Our hearts have not even been engaged -- nor, for that matter, have our ears! We've been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself 'What exactly did that clock strike?' -- so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed 'What have we really just experienced? And more: 'Who are we really?' Then, as I've mentioned, we count -- after the fact -- all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being -- alas! In the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: 'Each man is furthest from himself.' Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not 'knowledgeable people.'"
That's a quote which one of the characters speaks in the film.
I loved this movie. I'm going to reveal most of the plot below. People sometimes say, "That's terrible! I want that surprise of not knowing." So don't read below.
Myself, I find that sometimes plot isn't so important. We all know what happens in Moby-Dick: Ahab takes the crew on a long sea voyage, he drives the crew slowly mad, they spot Moby-Dick at the end and do battle, Ahab dies, the crew dies trying to save him, the whale sinks the ship, only Ishmael survives. Moby-Dick isn't about the plot, per se. Moby-Dick is about the vast detail contained in the sea voyage, and how this comes alive for the reader. Moby-Dick is about the way character comes to life through speech, behavior, and detail. On film, Moby-Dick is about how the actors bring the story to life through movement, tone, eye contact, and body language.
In other words: It's about acting.
American audiences seem to forget this. I forget this.
After all, what American actor or actress today acts? Name one movie in which Brad Pitt has actually turned in a performance. Yeah, I can't think of one, either. It's not about doing a fake accent, or wearing a pencil mustache. Pitt always seems to mistake the bits and gobs that he dabs onto his appearances for real acting.
The French seem never to have forgotten about acting. Even a fatally flawed film like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers is almost (well, almost) redeemed by superb acting. Compare Michael Pitt in The Dreamers with his paint-by-numbers appearances in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Bully, and Last Days. The difference can be felt on your skin.
Are there stand-out acting performances in Un conte de Noël? Not really. But then, every single person in this film is acting. There is not a single actor (yes, I can use that term) in this film who is not trying very hard to turn in an excellent performance. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie -- these people just "appear in." They do not act. But every single person in Un conte de Noël ACTS.
I can't say that Catherine Deneuve is a great actress. Or that she's better than Jean-Paul Roussillon or Mathieu Amalric or Laurent Capelluto. I can't say that Anne Consigny is better in a scene than Jean-Paul Roussillon, or that Deneuve's scene in X is better than what she does in Y.
But everyone in this film is acting.
My god, it's good.
There's also something very unnerving that happens visually in this film, too. Desplechin and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, try very hard to create a sense of disjointedness. Here's how:
In most films, editing cuts match action to action. Let's say I'm sitting in a chair and rise up to answer the door. The camera might be level with the table at my elbow, and captures me rising up out of the chair. The next camera shot is level with my head, and shows me rising up into the camera -- continuing the movement from the first shot. I move right to left across the field of vision. Now the camera is pointed at the door, and I move into the shot and open the door. Surprise! It's Simon Jacobi and Karel Grosse, with flowers and a wedding ring and a three-way marriage license. I embrace them.Desplechin throws out match-on-action and continuity editing.
Notice how each editing captures the start of one action, and matches it with the completion of the next action. This is called "match on action." It is the most common editing cut in the world.
Continuity is also observed in editing. Let's say I am talking to African American gay porn star Castro. The camera looks at my face as I say something. It looks as his face as he responds. I say something, and it focuses on me. He says something, and it focuses on him. This is a shot-reverse shot. In each shot, we look the same, have the same body language, are posed the same, etc. Sometimes, movie directors will say, "I want you to do this scene calmly. Then we'll do it again, and I want you to be calm but a little firmer. Then we'll do it again, but Tim will be calm and Castro will be a little sad." The editor then selects the best takes of all three, and melds them together into a performance. Nonetheless, you don't see me sitting there calmly in one shot and in the next I'm walking around ranting and raving and waving my arms. You won't see Castro wearing a black t-shirt in one shot and a red sweater in the next.
Continuity in film is key.
But in real life, is there continuity? Not really. As human beings, we're not really that observant. I don't notice that you have a cup of coffee in your hands until halfway through our 10 minute conversation. I think you are paying attention to me, but then after five minutes I realize your eyes are looking at your PDA. We talk and talk...and only after 10 minutes do I realize that your friend is in the background, waiting for us to finish.
He wants us to feel the disjointedness of reality. He wants us to see Abel lifting a coffee cup to his lips and then a split second later do it again. When Anne is talking to her son, Paul, Anne is seen sometimes leaning left and sometimes not leaning at all. Simon is seen swabbing the floor almost brutally one moment, and then next leaning on his mop as if tired and pensive. And the next second, he's brutally mopping away again.
Life is like that. Things happen when we look away for a second or two. Things move around in life.
This film has people and things move around, too.
You know, in a bad live television show, a person might talk about having a cup of coffee, and then it magically appears on the table in the next shot. It's jarring not because it shifts your sense of reality, but because it stands out against the rest of the show -- which is seamless and smooth. Desplechin's film is never seamless, never that surreally smooth.
And it's wonderful.
Massive plot spoilers back here........................................
Here's the set-up:
Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) is Abel Vuillard's (Jean-Paul Roussillon) wife, and the iron-willed matriarch of the Vuillard family. Junon held her family together through many tough times, but it also left many bad feelings among her children. Junon is still a handsome woman, but her husband (who owns a small fabric dying plant) has become obese and ugly with age. Junon may no longer love her husband, and the intellectual Abel may no longer love her, either.
The couple has three children, all grown and in their 30s. Their eldest daughter is Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who is married to the successful Claude (Hippolyte Girardot). They have a son, 16-year-old Paul (Emile Berling), who is mentally ill and taking a large amount of medication to control his emotional and psychological problems. Junon and Abel's middle son is Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who drinks too much and has always fought with other members of the family. He has a Jewish supermodel girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos). Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is the Junon and Abel's youngest son, and a very handsome man. He is married to the beautiful Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and they have twins sons named Basile and Baptiste.
Henri and Ivan are close friends with Simon (Laurent Capelluto), their cousin. He works in Abel's small fabric dying plant, but is a somewhat skilled painter in his spare time. He is also an alcoholic who has gotten in trouble with the law many times for brawling in public.
All three men dated Sylvia at one time, but she ended up falling in love with and marrying Ivan.
The Vuillard family's other son, Joseph, died of leukemia when he was six years old. Neither of his parents, Henri, nor Elizabeth was a bone marrow donor match, and Joseph died. Part of the siblings' poor relationship is the resentment they feel toward one another for not saving Joseph's life. Joseph's death deeply upset Elizabeth, his older sister, and she has never quite gotten over it.
Six years ago, Henri neared bankruptcy. Elizabeth paid off his debts, but demanded that he never see her or her parents again. No one knows why Elizabeth did this. Henri has kept his promise, though. Paul suspects Henri is his father, and this has worsened many of his emotional problems.
Just before Christmas, Junon learns that she, too, has leukemia and has two months to live. Her family gathers at the Vuillard home in Roubaix, a small city in the north of France. At the request of their mother, the entire family gathers at the Vuillard home for Christmas. They immediately fall to bickering. Henri and Elizabeth cruelly fight with one another, and Henri begins drinking heavily and hides Paul's medication. Ivan, the beautiful and innocent son, tries to play peacemaker.
Junon asks her children if one of them or Paul will donate bone marrow to her that will allow her to survive. Ivan immediately agrees, but proves unable to be a donor. Elizabeth, too, agrees to undergo the test to see if she can donate. Henri initially refuses to have the blood test, because he hates his mother. Paul is terrified that he might be forced to be the marrow donor, and knows that the blood test he will have to undergo may also reveal his true parentage.
Faunia has agreed to spend some time with the Vuillards before leaving to spend the Hannukah holiday with her own family. Her honesty and gentleness have a moderating impact on Henri, and she manages to spend two days with the family before finally departing.
On December 23, Rosaimée visits the family for dinner and fireworks. Rosaimée was Abel's mother's friend, although it is suggested that perhaps the two women were lesbian lovers rather than "just friends." Rosaimée tells Syliva that Simon stopped seeing Sylvia because he believed that she would be happier if she fell in love with Ivan. This deeply upsets Sylvia. She highly values her independence, and now suspects that her entire life might be a lie -- that she has been duped and manipulated into loving Ivan, and that her true path to happiness might be somewhere else.
Henri finally has the blood test without anyone's knowledge, and discovers he can be a donor. He decides to do so despite his hatred of his mother.
Simon disappears on Christmas Eve and begins drinking heavily in local cafes, and the entire family rushes out into the snow to find him. Sylvia discovers him in a distant cafe, and confesses that she knows Simon loves her. She and Simon spend several hours talking, then return to the Vuillard home and make love.
Very early in the morning on Christmas Day, Paul tries to tell Henri about his fears that he is the child of incest and that he might be permanently mad. Henri convinces him that he is not his father (the blood test Paul took has shown that) and that Paul is not a moral failure for being afraid. The man and boy begin to bond, and Paul begins to improve almost overnight.
That afternoon, Abel and Elizabeth discuss Elizabeth's decades-long depression, and Abel reads to her from the prologue to Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality about how well we know ourselves. Abel suggests that Elizabeth fears death, and that has led to her caution and depression.
The film ends with Ivan discovering that his wife has had sexual intercourse with Simon. He seems troubled, but says nothing. Sylvia seems to have fallen in love with Simon, and the two have agreed to become lovers. Paul decides to stay behind with Henri, who is having a very positive effect on his mental health. Henri, too, stays behind so that he can donate his bone marrow to Junon.
The final scenes show Henri donating the marrow, but Junon's body rejects the transplant. Back at her home in Paris, Elizabeth speculates that Junon will live. But Henri is shown flipping a coin in the hospital in front of his mother: Will she live or won't she? He does not reveal the coin's answer.