A Christmas gathering of a family bursting with unresolved issues

“Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) fits solidly into the genre of movies about families with unresolved issues returning home for Yuletide. Running152 minutes, the first 15-20 minutes are devoted to providing background. The parents, Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who owns a dye factory, housewife Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) are haunted by the death of the first son of leukemia at the age of six, following an unsuccessful search for a compatible bone-marrow donor. Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was in utreo at the time, and seems to have spent his lifetime acting out from the lack of love he received as a child.


Henri says that he tormented his older sister from when he was 5 until he was 17, though I’d make that 43. Five years before the Christmas in question, Elizabeth paid off a fraud of Henri’s on condition that she never have to see him again, so he was banished from family events.

The regal Junon now needs a bone-marrow donor, and, you guessed it, Henri is a match. The only other one is Elizabeth’s 15-year-old son Paul a lonely boy who has just been institutionalized for a psychotic break. Elizabeth sends Paul (to Christie’s) to invite Henri to the Christmas gathering

The baby of the family, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, with his usual stubble and one of the ugliest sweaters I’ve ever seen) reaches out to Paul, recalling a breakdown of his own when he was 15. Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, real-life daughter of Deneuve by Marcello Mastroianni and in real life has long been a close friend of Poupaud) have sons, Baile and Baptiste, I’d guess to be 6 and 4.

Henri arrives a day (well, late night) earlier than announced with a woman whose derrière is twice compared to Angela Bassett’s. Junon tells Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) that she likes her for taking the child she doesn’t like (while resenting Sylvia for taking he favorite).

Also along for the ride (first the train, then the week in Roubaix (60 km. north of Paris, close to the Belgian border), is Junon’s nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a painter. For the Christmas Eve fireworks (literal fireworks) and feast, Abel’s mother’s lover, Rosaimée (Françoise Bertin) is on hand… and the source of information that stuns Sylvia.

Henri and Simon have drinking problems. Henri is aggressive with or without alcohol; Simon gets into fights when he drinks. Elizabeth’s loathing for Henri has not abated, and if it had, he does everything he can to reignite it.

Junon has not decided to have the bone marrow transplant, which has a 35% chance of killing her (in contrast to a 95% chance that she will begin having symptoms of degenerative disease within a few months). Henri’s matricidal fantasies increase her reluctance. Elizabeth wants Paul to provide the bone marrow, demonstrating courage he could be proud of and making her line the one to save Junon.

Various characters learn various things about themselves and the family past, the youngsters put on a play they have written (Elizabeth has had five plays produced), three of the assembled host go to midnight mass, an infidelity is taken in stride. I guess there are low-key epiphanies, but the kind of life-changing transformations one gets in Hollywood Christmas movies do not occur.

The movie is long and complicated enough without any siblings of Abel or Junon and their offspring involved (except for Simon). Laurence Briaud (who also edited the 2.5-hour 2004 “Rois et reine” with Deneuveand Roussillon for Desplechin) uses far too many jump cuts IMO. That musical styles shift radically with each jump makes sure no one misses the radical jumps.

Deneuve and Amalric have the showiest parts and make the most of them. Roussillon and Poupaud are very sympathetic good fathers, not getting upset by the shenanigans of the other characters. And Emile Berling (L’heure d’été) is very good as Paul, with no one close in age to him, but with uncles reaching out to him.

A second disc of the Criterion edition includes the original French theatrical trailer, a 35-minutes making-of featurette and an hour-long documentary, “L’aimée” about the sale of the house (in Roubaix) in which Arnaud Desplechin grew up and his relations with his parents.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Notes on three Olivier Assayas films

I’m not sure what is the point of Olivier Assayas’s “Après Mai” (After May, 2012) which was released in English as “Something in the Air.” Starting in 1971, it seems quite a while after May 1968 and the failed revolution, and there were many things in the air, including romanticizing of Mao’s “cultural revolution,” police violence, protest, acid rock (of a rather folkish manner herein), very tentative feminism, female subordination within radical movements, free love, abortion, impatience with craft and careerism (and the director’s father’s Maigret adaptations). I don’t know why a girl vies with the Assayes figure, Gilles (long-haired, long-nosed, long-faced Clement Metayer), a copy of Gregory Corso’s 1958 Gasoline, but it does set up the visual joke of ripping out a page of Corso’s poems to use as fuel.


I didn’t understand the point of “Irma Vep” either. Assayas had just shot “Carlos” (2010), set in the same time and focused on a fame-seeking poseur without any particular convictions. Gilles wants to be an artist and has vague political beliefs that he is willing to undertake violence to promote.

Eric Gautier’s very fluid (stedicam) cinematography was superb and the music odd but not unpleasant. Assayes was born in 1955, so would have been 13 in 1968, 16 in 1971. Gilles reads Simon Leys and Assayas, who claimed “I was defined by the politics of May ’68” and also says his main political influence was George Orwell. His major cinematic influence, he said, was Robert Bresson. (He also shot an admiring documentary about Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and married Maggie Cheung, star of “Irma Vep”).


I was impressed by the multilingual fluency and the weight gains for the part of Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez as “Carlos” (né Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) but don’t know why the narcissistic terrorist (high-living mercenary) rated a three-part miniseries jumping from place to place (and language to language). I thought Ahmad Kaabour as his Palestinian handler Haddad and Christoph Bach as the associate “Angie” who did not want to be a killer were more interesting. “Carlos” won a Golden Globe as best mini-series and Ramírez was nominated as best actor in a mini-series (he and the miniseries were also nominated for Emmies) and he for a SAG award. Having spent 5.5+hours on it does not encourage watching other Olivier Assayas projects, thoughI  at least somehwat liked his 2008 “Summer Hours.” and The Clouds of Sils Maria,” both starring Juliette Binoche.

The first half of “Carlos,” (through the OPEC kidnapping) is more interesting (more consequential?) than the slow descent into hedonism and alienating those who had used him or associated with him. Insofar as Ramírez is a “chick magnet,” it must be because there are so many masochists.


More opaque, or perhaps having nothing to say, is Oliver Assayas’s 2016 “Personal Shopper,” in which Kristen Stewart has a bigger subservient role than in “The Clouds of Sils Maria” with no Juliet Binoche (she shops for Nora von Waldstatten, who was also in “Sils”). There’s way, way too much looking at her phone, both text exchanges with an unknown contact and watching movies (one of Victor Hugo in Jersey, another a documentary about a woman painter named Klimt whose work strikes me as Marevich’s.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Olivier Assayas’s “The Clouds of Sils Maria”

Juliette Binoche is ano actress whom I adore, preferring her glamorous. In “Clouds of Sils Maria” (written and direted by Olivier Assayas, 2014) that translates to preferring the first half of the movie to the second. Kristen Stewart, playing Val, the personal assistant of the actress, Maria, whom Binoche plays, lasts longer than the first part. Indeed, she lasts long enough in the movie  to win a César as best actress in what strikes me as a supporting role.

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Maria is being cast as the lesbian destroyed by the young personal assistant, a part she played twenty years earlier in the original production of the play. It made her a star and now the focus of tabloid frenzy is in the Hollywood starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is playing the part in the (London) revival. Val’s disappearance is a mystery to me. The titular clouds eventually appear (see poster below).


I recently realized that, faultless as Sophia Loren’s English is, there are no films in English in which she seems as good as she did in Italian films (directed by Vittorio De Sica). Binoche, in contrast, has been outstanding in English-language parts and I am dubious about many of her parts in French-language parts, including “Alice and Martin,” written but not directed by Assayes. (He also wrote her star-making role in 1985’s “Rendez-vous.”)

The focus on an aging star and a rising one has some resemblance to “All About Eve,” though Maria is not a diva like Margo, and Val is not trying to supplant her, like Eve. And CSM is far less funny than AAE. It really could use an acid wit like George Sanders’s. Binoche is more like Ingrid Bergman than she is like Bette Davis, especially after being shorn to play the older lesbian. And there is something of the other Bergman, especially “Persona,” as well as in the Bergman+Bergman aging diva flick “Autumn Sonata.”


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Juliette Binoche’s body exposed over and over in “Rendez-vous”

I really liked the 1994 coming-of-age (during the 1950s) French drama “Les Roseaux sauvages” (Wild Reeds), directed by André Téchiné (born 1943), but have been disappointed by the other films written and directed by him that I’ve seen: the 1996 “Les Voleurs,” 1996). I have to say that other than her Oscar-winning performance as the nurse in “The English Patient” (1996), the grieving widow in “Bleue” (1993),  Daniel Auteuil’s wife in “Caché” (2005), and the damsel sought by the dashing Olivier Martinez’s “Le Hussard sur le toit” (Horseman on the Roof, 1995), I have been disappointed by movies with Mlle. Binoche (Téchiné’s Alice and Martin, Chocolat, Damage, Children of the Century, Flight of the Red Balloon; she has been in 60+ other movies I haven’t seen).


Binoche is the primary character in “Rendez-vous,” Nina. At the start the viewer arrives with her in Paris from the provinces. The movie is about her fraught relationships with four men, three of whom want to own her. Jumping three months, she has a small part in a play and is living with Fredric (Jean-Louis Vitrac) who is dismayed by her promiscuity; Nina goes to a real-estate office, where the diffident, thin-lipped Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak) is smitten by her.

After a dinner for three that doesn’t get very far into the food, she packs her things and sets off on a very long walk across Paris to Paulot’s apartment. (Nina strides around Paris a lot over the course of the movie. This is one of the few promenades with a particular destination.)

Paulot shares the apartment with a very hostile and even more pretentious actor, Quentin (Lambert Wilson, Matrix Reloaded, Le Divorce). Quentin reminds Paulot of the house rule against anyone else staying more than one night and Nina stalks off again—to a hotel conveniently just across the street.

In one of the torrential rains in the movie (“When it rains, it pours” seems generally true in movies: rarely does it just sprinkle!), Quentin comes across the street to ravage her.

Paulot find a low-rent apartment in an otherwise empty building that is going to be torn down for her and tries to seduce her when he shows it to her. She responds to the rough-handling of Quentin, but not to the considerate Paulot (Téchiné providing another male visions of female masochism…).

Binoche’s then-30-year-oldbody is fully exposed multiple times during the movie, which I’m sure suffices as motivation for watching the film for some. Other than indications of feelings of inadequacy/stage fright, I have little sense of what Nina felt or thought about anything, including about the men wanting to own her (not just to have her body but to control her).

Roughly midway through the film, the fourth man appears. A decade before “Rouge,” a decade and a half after “The Conformist,” Jean-Louis Trintignant played Scrutzler, a highly regarded stage director who rarely condescends to direct a play. With him comes the backstory of Quentin (who I neglected to mention has a gig in a live-sex performance piece in the first half of the movie’s present time) and gives Nina’s stage career a big chance (Juliet). Trintignant looks haunted enough, but his regrets about having played Svengali to Quentin and the young woman who, earlier, was to play Juliet to Quentin’s Romeo strike me as claptrap.

The first half of the movie is not satisfying (except, perhaps, to some voyeurs), the second half is actively annoying. I am astounded that Téchiné was nominated for a César for writing and won the Best Director award at Cannes for this badly written and badly directed movie. (The Golden Palm at Cannes went, by unanimous vote, to the Yugoslavian “When Father Was Away on Business.” And Wadeck Stanczak received a César as “most promising newcomer”—a promise he has failed to keep.)

Binoche is better at depressive than at light-hearted. Whether active or passive in sex in “Rendez-vous,” she and it are joyless—the sex (of which there is a lot) does not seem to have anything to do with pleasure (for any of the participants), though perhaps Téchiné imagined pleasures of abjection for Nina. She is objectified by the four men and by writer/director Téchiné and co-scenarist Olivier Assayas (who was back with more neuroses for her to embody in “Alice and Martin”).

The movie looks ugly—even with Paris and Binoche (particularly her dark apartment—but not her). I felt soiled by watching the movie. Also, the transfer seemed poor (though it could be the original image). The DVD has no bonus features. But 82 minutes was already too much time to spend on the movie, IMO.

It took a long time for the movie to be available here on DVD, but except for gawking at the body of the young Binoche, “Rendez-vous” has very little to offer viewers. Especially with Trintignant and a beautiful younger woman (with whom he does not have sex), “Rendez-vous” recalls the far superior (Kieslowski) “Rouge” to me (“Rouge” was made years later, but crossed the Atlantic much earlier).

©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Melancholy, very French movie about the dispersal of an estate

There are almost as many movies starring French chateaux as ones starring English countryside manor houses. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep),“L’heure d’été” (Summer Hours, 2008) focuses on a house with considerable acreage where Paul Berthier, a Pierre Bonnard-like painter, lived and worked. It passed to his favorite niece, Hélène (Edith Scob) whose three children and brood of grandchildren are celebrating Hélène’s 75th birthday.


Designer daughter Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche) has brought the English version of a book on her great-uncle from New York. One son, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), has come from Shanghai, where he runs a Puma factory. The other, Frédéric (Charles Berling) is a Parisian economist, notorious for a book disclaiming scientific pretensions of economics.

Hélène insists on addressing issues about what will become of the house and her uncle’s art (two Corot paintings, a pair of Redon screens, his own notebooks) and art deco furniture/furnishings. Frédéric does not want to discuss this, certain that the house will remain the same (as when his great-uncle died), that his siblings and their children will continue to return for summers.

Hélène is better aware that the lives of her other two children are elsewhere. She wants Adrienne to have some silver objets d’art, and Frédéric to have the last sketch, but thinks that the furniture and art should go to the Musée d’Orsay. (In fact, they were borrowed from it for the film that was partially sponsored by the museum, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” also starring Binoche.)

Hélène dies before the phone system her children gave her is operationalized, and Frédéric is disappointed to learn that he is the only one who doesn’t want to sell the house. He accedes to his siblings’ wishes; there are no dramatic confrontations (contrast “A Christmas Tale” that shares the soulful young Emile Berling). Something of a skeleton comes out of the closet (disbelieved by Frédéric), and the vases that once held flowers around the house are entombed in the d’Orsay. The children have a final party, and at least one of them expresses regret that the children she will someday have will not have the experience of the house and grounds.


Though the movie is primarily about the dispersal of Hélène art nouveau world, I was sorry that Scob (Eyes without a Face) was not around for more of it.

In addition to Francophiles, the movie should interest those (like me) who remember the death of parents and the dispersion of what they owned, even if not of museum quality. Like other Assayas movies (Boarding Gate, Clean), though more gently, globalization is the subtext: the three children live on three different continents as objects that were domestic are gawked at (or, worse, passed by obliviously) in a museum. (There is a certain biting the hand that fed the project.

The cast (especially Isabelle Sadoyan as the aged housekeeper) is splendid, but the objets and grounds are the stars. Eric Gautier (Clean, Into the Wild, Motorcycle Diaries) shoots it all beautifully. Fortunately, Assayas’s veneration of Hou does not extend to chaining down the camera.


©2010, Stephen O. Murray

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles

Before this week, I had read all of the collections of short stories by Paul Bowles (1910-99, who lived in Tangier from 1947 until his death) and three of his four novels. I had put off reading the third of his novels, The Spider’s House (1955) because it is the longest and because I thought it might be too connected to what had just passed from being current events when it was written, that is, the revolt against the French that Bowles had observed, but not participated in.


After a prologue with an American writer in Morocco, Stenholm, the novel focuses on an illiterate young Moroccan named Amar, who is nearly as apolitical as Bowles or Stenham. Quite inadvertently, Amar encounters the local (Fez) leader of the Muslim revolt, Moulay Ali, who is not to Amar’s way of thinking a proper Muslim (not just imbibing alcohol but insufficiently fatalistic). Moulay Ali and his entourage believe that Amar must be a spy for the French. Eventually, Amar’s flute-playing helps Moulay Ali escape a French stakeout, though Amar only realizes this is what was going on after the fact.

Before the long final set piece in Moulay’s hideout, Stenham and an American tourist, Polly (Lee, since she hates the name “Polly”), take Amar and his frenemy Mahmoud along to a festival in the mountains. Neither of the Americans is very interested in having an affair with the other and they are not even particularly a good fit as traveling companions (recalling the married couple in The Sheltering Sky and their interests in the natives that do not dovetail; there is not so extreme an ending as in The Sheltering Sky (1949) or some of Bowles’s short stories, however).

The book shows something about the hatred the colonized had for the colonizers, and the incomprehension of American romanticizing Muslims and/or the anti-colonial struggle. Stenham and Lee are not quite Paul and Jane Bowles, but there are more than passing resemblances. And Paul Bowles took on many young Moroccans and wrote with greater facility than Stenham about them, often from their point of view. (I still wonder how much Mohammed Mrabet dictated to Bowles, how much he is a character Bowles crafted).

The tumult that will not stay in the background is credible in the manner of Olivia Manning’s two trilogies (more than Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet).


I’m not sure that I “like” Bowles’s fiction, but I usually find it interesting, and this was again the case for The Spiders House. For me, there is a bit too much scene-setting, that is, specification of locations and descriptions of sites and sights. And too many words and phrases in Arabic or French.) There is a glossary for the Arabic expressions, though I think almost all of them would have better been translated within the text.

Nowadays, there is much fretting about cultural appropriation. Bowles did not pretend to be an illiterate Moroccan boy. He much more resembled Stenham, not least in his romantic attachment to the older, calmer colonial epoch, yet he makes Amar a very credible figure with a subjectivity that does not feel like a ventriloquist performance. (Just how much he put into Mrabet’s fiction, which Bowles supposedly translated rather than wrote, is another, more suspicious, matter.)


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Irene Papas as “Electra” (1962)

Euripides’s tragedies won few prizes than those of Aeshylus and Sophocles, but seem most to speak to contemporary audiences. I think this was already the case in 1962 when Michael Cacoyannis (Michalis Kakogiannis) adapted, produced, and directed the formidable Irene Papas in the title role of his movie of Euripides’s “Electra”/”Ilektra.” The ancient Athenian theaters were outdoors, but Cacoyannis takes the story even more outdoors (on location in Greece). I wouldn’t say it is a spectacle, but it is very far from wordy, either.


There are no spoken lines for the first five minutes or so in which Agamemnon returns triumphant from the Trojan War (without a visible captive Cassandra), greets his children, and is led in to bathe by his wife, Klymenestra (Aleka Kastselli). It is her longtime (the Trojan War lasted ten years) lover Aegithus (Phoebus Rhazis)who slays Agammemnon entangle in a net, which I think it a major mistake (Klymenestra should wield the ax to slay her husband).

Neither of the later two revenge slaying is shown. It seems Orestes fights and kills Agethius rather than murdering him. Whether Electra lends a hand with killing their mother is not clear, though she is present for the deed.

(She cuts off her hair and places it on her father’s tomb early in the movie, so she looks butch a virgin.)


Yannis Fertis provides the appropriate mix of hesitation and vengeance as Orestes, and Aleka Kastselli has quite an aria justifying slaying the king who sacrificed their daughter (Iphigenia) so the becalmed Greek fleet could sail to Troy. (There is no indication that a sheep may have been substituted, as one was for Isaac when Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son to Jehovah). Anyone coming to the film not knowing the story would not know until late that Klymenestra was herself engaging in revenge, not just uxoricide to continue her relationship/joint rule with Aegithus.

There is an altogether wordless “chorus” of peasant women from the vicinity where the exiled princess (Electra) has been sent (with a respectful husband (Notis Peryalis).

Though Orestes flees at the end, there is no indication that he is pursued by the Furies or that Athena will arrange (and in some versions) decide a jury trial that will exonerate him for parricide.

The stark black-and-white cinematography of hills and clouds and the faces of the leading characters was done by a young Walter Lassaly (who would go on to lens Zorba the Greek, Tom Jones, Heat and Dust et al.), who was already a master. The film was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray