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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.