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Arnaud Desplechin on “A Christmas Tale”

Arnaud Desplechin on “A Christmas Tale” (photo)

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November may be too early to call it, but as of now, this writer’s favorite film of the year has more in common with “The Family Stone” or “Home for the Holidays” than most European filmmakers’ oeuvres — but it certainly ain’t a product of Hollywood. Written and directed by the tremendously gifted, expectation-defying auteur Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen,” “My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into an Argument”), “A Christmas Tale” doesn’t just freshen up the holiday reunion melodrama. Rather, it reinvents the overplayed genre into a novelistic epic; a banquet of exhilarating sights and naked emotions; a rich ensemble piece so joyous and heartbreaking that any lucid description is bound to get a bit purple. Set in a provincial French town, the film introduces the fractious Vuillard family (including some of the country’s finest actors: Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos) as they reunite after several years, then learn that matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) will die without a bone marrow transplant. Bickering and boozing under the same roof, tensions build, secrets are unveiled and resentments both implode and explode, but Desplechin’s idiosyncratic filmmaking dazzles in such dense detail that a single viewing can’t possibly reveal all the film’s treasures. (See what I mean? Purple.) With a little help from a translator, the quite amiable Desplechin and I chatted last month about the film’s distinctly American genre, why Michael Mann fascinates him and Angela Bassett’s derrière.

At the beginning of the film, Vuillard patriarch Abel delivers a eulogy about the death of his first-born son, and if I’m not mistaken, it seemed joyous. Was I not picking up something?

I can’t pick it up either. The words actually come from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s diaries, and it’s what he said upon the death of his child. When he said those words in Concord, it was a shocking thing to hear then, too. He was trying to make something negative into a positive, or to find something positive in what was basically negative. When I came across this, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought it had both poetic and even dramatic value, and through an actor might come to have meaning.

You have this man saying, “I’m not sad.” It’s not lying; it’s fighting against the idea of mourning. 20 years after that, all his family is mad. [laughs] But it’s in a nice way, because all of them are contesting their own sadness, saying: “I don’t give a shit.” That’s what Emerson was calling the New World. It’s creating a new world because of the things that are unpardonable and the things that can’t be recovered. Of course, there’s a grotesque aspect because you have this little provincial town in France, where each of the members of this one family is trying to construct their own new world. I think that’s nice. That’s my way of understanding Emerson’s life.

That also explains a momentarily seen homage I didn’t catch the first time: a movie poster for Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” In another interview, you mentioned that you write action before characters. Could you elaborate?

It’s difficult to express that. What I could say is I’m not able to write “here you are” with a character, walking in the street, this guy talks like this or like that. Until I film him, I don’t know him. Is he gloomy? Funny? I can’t see a thing. To give you an example: In the beginning, when Abel is speaking about mourning his son, he says, “My son detached himself from me like a leaf detaches itself and falls from a tree.” If you hear this, you might think that this is really cruel. How could he say such a thing? But working together with the actor, Jean-Paul Roussillon, we looked at it. You can see that here’s somebody who turns out to be quite maternal. He’s the one who mothers his family. Once you see him that way, perhaps what he says before becomes a little more understandable. It doesn’t have the cruelty that you thought it had at first.

11112008_achristmastale3.jpgThere are so many richly developed characters in this ensemble. Working the way you’ve just described, how do you juggle them all and still maintain a believable complexity?

That’s very hard to do, to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. What you have to do is make it work for all the parties that are involved, for the viewers, but also the actors and technicians so that they work together and enjoy what they’re doing. You try to work out all the variations in the scenario while writing the screenplay. I had to decide, well, who would be the person who would be sick? Who would give the marrow for the transplant? In the end, I had 32 possibilities. One possibility is Ivan. One possibility is Henri. A third possibility is Henri plus Ivan. You try all of them.

It’s like solving a creative equation.

Yeah, and then at the end of it, you finally choose one person. But this process that you’ve now gone through with all of these characters has enabled you to understand those characters, too. Then we come to one of my favorite parts of the production, which is the point just before we begin shooting, where we’re scouting out the locations. I’m with the crew, the D.P., and we’re looking at everything — will this work? We put the gestures in, and it’s almost as if we’re replaying the screenplay without completely trusting it.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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