The tragicomic universe of French director Arnaud Desplechin thrives on the messy collisions between old friends and new lovers, selfish parents and resentful children, unrequited love and long-simmering jealousy, classical music and hip-hop, madness and genius. In his best films, he seems to squeeze all of life’s unruly pains, pleasures and lunacies into the boundaries of a single, sprawling celluloid canvas. And Desplechin’s latest, A Christmas Tale, which kicks off a six-film retrospective co-presented by AFI Fest and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is no exception. Taking the director’s career-spanning interest in families — the ones we’re born into and the ones we make for ourselves — to the cellular level, A Christmas Tale unfolds during the chaotic holiday reunion of an extended clan whose matriarch (a regal Catherine Deneuve) has recently been diagnosed with degenerative bone cancer. A marrow transplant is her only hope of survival; children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews are all potential donors. Unlike the typical Hollywood variation on this story, however, the looming specter of death serves not as a panacea for the healing of old family wounds. It is, instead, a reason to pick away at old scabs, to dig toward the very DNA of human relations.
The movie brings Desplechin full circle, in a way, from his exquisite, medium-length film, La Vie des Morts (1991), which focused on another family reunion in the wake of tragedy — the suicide attempt (complete with frequent close-ups on an x-ray of a bullet lodged in a human brain) of a seemingly happy, popular young man. Born in 1960 and a graduate of the French film school FEMIS, Desplechin made his feature debut with La Sentinelle (1992), an existential thriller about a Parisian medical student who discovers a severed human head in his suitcase. But his international breakthrough came with My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument (1996), an expansive ensemble comedy whose philosophy-student protagonist, Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), embarks on a journey of such extraordinary ordinariness as to rival that of his literary namesake. If that film provides the recognizable template for both A Christmas Tale and the previous Kings and Queen (2005), Desplechin can hardly be accused of predictability: Esther Khan (2000), an uneven but often glorious English-language period piece about a young Jewish woman’s rise from East End garment worker to West End stage star, threw even some of the director’s professed admirers for a loop. An even more radical departure, the subsequent Playing “In the Company of Men” (2003) — missing from this series due to print availability — juxtaposed an adaptation of the titular Edward Bond play with scenes of the actors rehearsing their roles. Local audiences will, however, have their first chance to see L’Aimée, a 2007 documentary in which Desplechin prevails upon his father, Robert, to help him reconstruct the life of his paternal grandmother, Thérèse, who died when Robert was an infant. So the subject is family again — this time, none other than Desplechin’s own. L’Aimee and La Vie des Morts screen Sun., Nov. 2, 12:45 p.m. at ArcLight Hollywood; A Christmas Tale screens Sun., Nov. 2, 6:45 p.m. at ArcLight Hollywood and Fri., Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m. at LACMA; Esther Khan screens Tues., Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m. at LACMA; Kings and Queen screens Sat., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m. at LACMA; My Sex Life … screens Fri., Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m. at LACMA; La Sentinelle screens Mon., Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m. at LACMA.