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Smith Opera House unwraps “A Christmas Tale”

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” (“Un Conte De Noel”), a wily and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time. Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death. “A Christmas Tale” will be screened at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 and March 2, and at 2:00 on Sunday, March 1 at the Smith Opera House, 82 Seneca St.The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s” Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood — the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years — they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may help smooth over a few emotional rough patches.Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the benevolent patron, is the welcoming host who embraces all and avoids conflict, but goes to his room to escape the craziness by listening to his hard bop jazz collection. Junon is much less forgiving and strangely non-maternal (it’s no wonder that Henri once pondered if he was secretly born of another mother). Henri puts up a front of indifference to Elizabeth’s arrogant banishment of him for all these years, but in fact he’s deeply hurt by it, and by the way his father and younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) never challenged her. Or even asked her why. And for all the public show of strength and resilience from Elizabeth, she is really the most fragile and volatile and troubled sibling in the family and Consigny reveals that vulnerability every time she removes herself from the crowd and lets her social mask drop in the privacy of her own fears.Everyone in this cast is magnificent. Amalric is a hustler whose true mercenary instincts are left vaguely defined and who is reflexively defensive in every conversation: he anticipates the worst from everyone. He can also be the most unreadable and unpredictable, and has the ability to toss off injury like it was a hiccup. Poupaud is the happy-go-lucky little brother who still plays the role, affectionate and genially shallow as he skips over the tops of the churning tensions. Deneuve is chilly and aloof and confesses her dislikes more freely than she shows affection. Chiara Mastroianni is the dutiful daughter-in-law who can’t understand why Junon is so distant from her. Laurent Capelluto is the beloved cousin, just one of the boys who has a little perspective on the family because he keeps himself emotionally removed. And Emmanuelle Devos throws off sparks as Henri’s girlfriend, Faunia, smiling as she mixes it up with the family, holding her own in the chaos and, apparently, enjoying every minute of it.Desplechin directs with even more restless energy and impulsive immediacy that he showed with “Kings and Queen,” and draws from an arsenal that recalls the work of Truffaut and Godard in the early New Wave, and like them he weaves his cinematic ideas in his narrative tapestry of perspective and memory. He isn’t out to explain as much as explore the complicated relationships between family members and the complexity of feelings behind those connections as he roams through flashbacks, detours through old secrets and clues that don’t always lead you to a solution. They don’t illuminate the why, only the layers of drama coursing through the what, and even those are subjective at best, a loaded perspective that reveals more about the narrator than the event itself.This is neither a farce of dysfunctional collisions nor a family drama where dredging up past sins and misunderstandings leads to teary reconciliations. It’s about the messy space inhabited by loved ones who will never know or understand everything about each other or themselves, and may never overcome their own impulses and emotional reflexes. For all the prickly relations, Desplechin’s mix of joy and sadness and generosity and selfishness and forgiveness and blame is beautiful and celebratory.Desplechin has cited among his influences the films of Ingmar Bergman and Wes Anderson; he’s certainly amassed just as staggeringly good a troupe of performers as any those two directors ever corralled, and he also shares the same tendency to tap the same themes and motifs from previous films. There’s a danger of diminishing returns in this looping back, but if there’s a tipping point (and there is — just ask Anderson or Woody Allen, whose masterstrokes in neuroses surely inspired Desplechin), then he hasn’t gotten there yet. He’s powerfully fixed on the fallout from familial and romantic disconnect, and this is his most beautifully rendered realization of that yet. It’s a perfectly pitched telling of what happens when families get together — how we are free to be our best and worst while in the company of those who have loved and loathed us most intimately.Full of invention and energy, rich with suggestive details, and brimming with evocative and playful technique woven into a dynamic piece of storytelling, “A Christmas Tale” is a film that pulses with human life in all its terrible and beautiful irrationality. It is not rated and has a running time of 152 minutes. Tickets are $5 general admission, $3 for students and senior citizens. Call 315-781-LIVE (5483) or toll-free 1-866-355-LIVE (5483) for details or to order tickets. Tickets may also be purchased online at www.TheSmith.org.The Smith Opera House is owned and operated by the Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.

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