Only Arnaud Desplechin would build a sobering consideration of the psychic aftermath of the Cold War around a bewildering political-thriller plot in which a medical student cares for a severed head that lands in his luggage. Mathias Barillet (Emmanuel Salinger) can’t identify the specimen or who might have plunked it into his bag, but in The Sentinel (1992) — Desplechin’s feature-length debut — the doctor-to-be clings to the head with an intensity that eclipses mere obsession. He stares at it, studying its contours and feeling the strands of hair; he analyzes X-rays of the skull while chewing on a cold cut sandwich; he pries it open with scissors and an X-Acto knife so he can rummage through for potential clues.
The Sentinel is baffling and hysterical — “No more crying or vomiting!” barks a doctor when one of Mathias’s colleagues gets sick after a classroom autopsy — but it’s also a harrowing tale of psychological breakdown that concludes with Mathias being treated in an antiseptic hospital room, wounded, distraught, and alone. Burdened by the past in senses both personal (Mathias’s deceased father was a well-known diplomat) and historical (the splintering legacies of both the Cold War and the Second World War are alluded to, as in “We live on a billion dead”), the movie suspends Mathias in a paranoid atmosphere in which the dead — in forms more invisible and insidious than that decapitated head — exert a profound influence on daily existence.
This thematic preoccupation is carried over from Desplechin’s fifty minute The Life of the Dead (1991), which, for both its rarity and its painfully resonant command of mood, ranks among the highest priorities in the Film Society’s week-long Desplechin retro. A movie in mourning in which an extended family comes together after a suicide attempt, Life of the Dead originates signature images from the Desplechin to come: X-rays of loved ones in critical condition; dining room gatherings quaking with emotional turbulence (“It’s war, that’s all” is how one participant describes a mealtime argument); a delicately scattering camera pinned to the movements of a large family sharing intimate spaces. Characters are seen entering and exiting rooms, traipsing up and down the central staircase, and blithely shaving in the bathroom while another takes a bubble bath — all cyclical, rotating activities that add up to a moving-diorama perspective on the tumult of family life.
Desplechin takes this approach to more extreme lengths in his most startling movie, Esther Kahn (2000), set in the Jewish slums of late-nineteenth-century London. On “one of those dark, evil-smelling streets” — to quote the dispassionate, omniscient narrator, a regular Desplechin device — Esther Kahn lives with her parents and many siblings, who all toil in the family’s homegrown-garment business. Within this sphere, Esther stands apart: She pricks her finger while trying to sew and, in a scene of astonishing cruelty, sulks alone on a bed, cast out from the convivial postprandial conversation. The mother reassures one enraged sister who objects to Esther’s presence: “Pay no attention to [Esther]. She’s not a human child — she’s a monkey.” Everyone laughs.
In her teenage years, Esther (Summer Phoenix) escapes this family and discovers a new one: the theater. An impromptu visit to a Yiddish production serves as her initiation. Where the audience around her offers conventional reactions to the show — laughing, oohing, aahing — Esther sits in rapture, mouth agape, leaning forward so intently that her chin brushes the balcony railing. If normal life won’t have her, then Esther will devote herself to the sister realm of acting. Everything climaxes with a crippling episode of stage fright on Esther’s opening-night attempt at performing Hedda Gabler. Behind the curtain she shakes like a child, and her close-knit colleagues come to her aid. Under Desplechin’s communal gaze, they resemble nothing so much as another bustling family unit.
Like its subject, Esther Kahn stands as an outlier: It’s both Desplechin’s first English-language movie and his first period piece, and it’s certainly the only time he’s constructed a movie around a single actor. (Phoenix’s unshakable performance — full of barely literate rage and violent, untamed body language — confused and transfixed critics in equal measure when Esther premiered at Cannes in 2000.) Kings and Queen (2004) constitutes a more typical Desplechin affair: a two hour-plus, chaotically populated ensemble effort paced with helter skelter verve and ricocheting, deliberately and discordantly, between pit-of-despair tragedy and absolute farce.
Desplechin casts the same actors over and over again — Salinger; Marianne Denicourt; Catherine Deneuve; Fabrice Desplechin, his brother — and the principals of Kings and Queen are two of his favorites. Emmanuelle Devos is a widowed mother uncertain how to handle her son in the wake of her father’s terminal-cancer diagnosis, and Mathieu Amalric is her volatile ex-husband, who gets wrestled into confinement in a mental institution. Desplechin’s ensembles commit to unpredictable rhythms and can jump capably between emotional registers — circumstances under which Devos and Amalric both thrive. In Kings and Queen, Devos has two scenes with the apparition of her character’s dead husband, and they couldn’t be more different: In the first, set in a bright hospital hallway, she looks at him fondly, eyes bursting with love; in the second, set in an ambiguous black-box-like space, she trembles with fear as he unleashes a tirade on her (“Every night, you wake me, you piss me off!”).
Scenes like these are emotional centerpieces, but the great promise of Desplechin’s movies — a direct result of his all-you-can-eat approach to character and style — is the potential for magic to materialize on the periphery. In his newest movie, My Golden Days (2015), Desplechin retraces the first love of Paul Dédalus (Quentin Dolmaire), the same character Amalric played in Desplechin’s 1996 My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument, but one of the loveliest scenes doesn’t involve Paul at all. With a house party raging downstairs, Paul’s shy sister retreats to an upstairs bedroom, where she finds her father drinking whiskey. “Dad, why am I ugly?” she asks him, to his shock. “Is there a boy down there you like?” he responds. She looks down and shakes her head. “Look no further. That’s why you have no boyfriend,” he says tenderly, as if stating the obvious. This is a father who, in flashbacks, has been glimpsed beating his son mercilessly for poor grades. Few other directors would then show him — even for just an instant — saving his daughter’s life.
‘Golden Days: The Films of Arnaud Desplechin’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
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