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Taking Risks

A Christmas Tale -- IFC Films

Wendy and Lucy -- Oscilloscope Pictures

Every director needs at least some courage, but Arnaud Desplechin has quite a lot. With his new film, A Christmas Tale, he bravely took on a trite form, hoping that he could vitalize it. He succeeds. He also gave the picture a title that risks the corny, apparently sure that it would come to seem ironic. Eventually it even transcends irony.

Born in Roubaix, an industrial city in northern France, Desplechin, with coauthor Emmanuel Bourdieu, sets his story there. The pattern is familiar: a large family gathers--in this case for the holiday, but in other films it has been for a birthday or an anniversary--and, in the course of time and drink, the seemingly merry group splits into hates and spites and jealousies. Desplechin varies the pattern from the start: he tells us very early that this group has troubles. The daughter of the family, a playwright named Elizabeth, hates one of her brothers, Henri, a drifter, because of a quarrel five years ago. She has not spoken to him in those five years. Further, we learn early that Elizabeth's sixteen-year-old son, Paul, quiet, dreamy, is schizophrenic. To cap these unfestive preliminaries there is some news about the matriarch, Junon. She has just been diagnosed with leukemia, the illness that killed her infant son many years ago, and she needs a transfusion of bone marrow. Shaded by all these opening matters, the title soon looks a bit guileful.

Yet the film encloses these anti-mistletoe facts in its holiday shape. The family gathering includes mother, father, two sons and a daughter, a nephew, and others. This Christmas is never jolly, but the aura of celebration affects behavior. For instance, Simon, Junon's nephew, has long been silently in love with Sylvia, his cousin's wife, and during the holiday--in a way because of it--we see that silence breached. Then the doctors discover that two of the family have the right type of bone marrow for Junon, troublesome Henri and reticent Paul. Along with the ordinary gift-giving, we see the decision made about the donor of this rather extraordinary present.

Desplechin holds his film in a context formed of two factors. First, this family, woes and all, very soon takes us in. We do not observe--we enter. Their troubles affect us as if we were participants: these people are so authentic that it would almost be rude to resist. The second factor derives from their immediacy: the family's general view of life--a basically tacit philosophy. It is manifested first by Junon, when she learns of her condition. Here is a woman who is told that she is close to death, but she is neither distraught nor panicky nor desperate. She accepts the news not because she relies on a donor in her family--she doesn't yet know of one. She simply accepts it. Though she never articulates her view, it clearly suffuses her--a sense that life consists of whatever happens to you, nothing more, nothing less. (A Danish prince said, "The readiness is all.") Her behavior sets the tone for a film that wraps troubled people in a sort of composure.

Junon is played by Catherine Deneuve, who is just about old enough to convince as a matriarch but is exactly right for the calm fatalism of the role. The death of her first child decades ago from the disease that now threatens her has apparently tempered her mind and spirit to acceptance, almost as if a pattern were being fulfilled. Most of the others breathe the same air of acceptance about themselves. Her husband, Abel, played by the endearingly homely Jean-Paul Roussillon, is of course concerned about Junon but shares her dignity in the face of the imponderable. Mathieu Amalric's unruly but appealing Henri bases his pococurantism on a shrug in the face of existence. There is one exception to the general mood. Sylvia--played affectingly by Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve and the late great Marcello--has her affair with her husband's cousin as a kind of protest against the idea of acceptance.

At one point in the film, Henri, somewhat bewildered but amused at his bewilderment, says, "We're all in the middle of a myth, and I don't know what the myth is." Here is Desplechin's atmospherics, a belief that the real exists within the perimeter of the abstract. The holiday party itself is part of the mythology, not through religion but through the shaping of pattern, almost peripheral pattern. This is more than irony. It is, in a large sense, enclosure--in myth that we are conscious of from time to time but that, as Henri says, we do not understand. (As if to confirm his percept, in the last moments of this veristic film comes an outright allusion to the mythic: a brief quotation from A Midsummer Night's Dream and a snatch of Mendelssohn's music.)

Desplechin delves into these complexities simply by focusing on his people. (Literally, too: that focus includes occasional iris shots for emphasis. Not incidentally, Desplechin was once a cinematographer.) Patently he thinks that the subtlest way to penetrate states of mind is through fidelity to dailiness, to character. He has skill, patience, empathy, and insight; quickened by the holiday occasion, they make the title of his film ultimately, if unconventionally, right.

A new American film also challenges formula--more, it risks banality. Wendy and Lucy is about a young woman, Wendy, who is traveling with her dog, Lucy, the two of them facing a new life together. Not an immediately promising idea. Still, daring to begin with that risk of arrant tear-jerking, this concise eighty-minute picture goes on to become a treat.

The director, Kelly Reichardt, wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, who wrote the original story. They also collaborated on the screenplay of Old Joy, which in 2006 announced the arrival, in Reichardt, of a gifted director. That film was about a momentous weekend in the lives of two middle-aged men, hippies who up to that moment have ignored social proprieties. Wendy and Lucy has another antagonist of convention, but this time it is a young woman. Wendy has left her (apparently adequate) Midwest home and in a ramshackle car is heading, with her dog, toward Alaska and change. We meet them in an Oregon town, where the car collapses and Lucy gets lost.

Wendy ties Lucy to a post outside a supermarket and goes into the store to shoplift. (Her money is tight.) She is caught, arrested, kept overnight in jail, fined, and released. She has been worrying most about Lucy. By the time she gets back to the supermarket plaza, the dog is gone. Most of the film is about Wendy's efforts to find her. Except for one scary night when she sleeps in a park, the level of drama in the piece is low. This is exactly right for the film: Reichardt is not out for blasts. Evidently she believes that drama isn't only a matter of great agons: lesser jolts can open chasms. Wendy is very quickly frightened by the surprising gap in her life that the loss of her dog opens up. It is precisely because of the large effect of the relatively small loss--small (even pet owners might agree) as against the wilderness of the world at large--that we want to comfort Wendy. Yet it is her experience of the few days without Lucy that brings her to her final generosity.

Wendy talks with only a few people in that Oregon town, but in each instance the encounter defines a person. Walter Dalton, as a friendly security guard at a parking lot, is warmly freighted with that old man's past. Will Patton, as the head mechanic of the garage where Wendy wants her car repaired, seems to have interrupted a real-life garage job to appear in this film. If these two men were gruff toward the young stranger in town, it would be believable but pat. The guard's decency and the mechanic's patience make Wendy herself seem even more forlorn.

Michelle Williams, who was Heath Ledger's wife in Brokeback Mountain, is Wendy, completely. She apparently did not prepare her role by making what actors call choices, but by imaginative union with the woman she was playing. Then she let the choices come as they would and will. There is no bravura in Williams, only a pledge to be less visible than Wendy, to be less the heroine of a film than a person in this town on whom the camera happens to light.

Reichardt, who edited her own picture, directs with a transformative eye. She selects and combines and glides along, savoring as she goes. Her pensive quality lends implication to what she looks at. (Shots of a railroad freight yard carry hints--even threats--of the hobo life. On the other hand, shots of rows of neat houses suggest security bought with rote.) Her film is made with loving precision, confidently bypassing the sentimental, and at the last it is quietly genuine. In happy sum, Reichardt is one more of the current American directors, most of them still young, who are endowing our film world with pleasure and hope.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film editor of The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.