Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Ceaseless Spirit

The jam-packed films of Arnaud Desplechin

Stuart Klawans
November 06, 2008

Not since the death of François Truffaut (may his memory be for a blessing) has France had a filmmaker quite like Arnaud Desplechin. Respected yet popular—or the other way around, as some argue—he has now reached a level of international success unmatched in his generation, and from which he might go on to rival even Pedro Almodóvar. It’s easy to see why. Like the Spanish master of new-wave melodrama, Desplechin tends toward overstuffed plots, theatrical conceits, rapid shifts in mood and style, and outrageously candid gestures. To these traits, he adds an element found not in Almodóvar but in the works of Woody Allen, whose inspiration he often acknowledges: a high level of literacy among the characters, and a correspondingly flighty level of chatter.

These characteristics are evident in A Christmas Tale, the film that has now confirmed Desplechin’s elevation above his peers. The roll-out of the movie has been nothing less than a triumphal progress, which began last May in Cannes: months of festival screenings, puff pieces, and advance rave reviews, followed in select American cities by mid-career retrospectives. In New York, the auteur-o-rama began yesterday at the IFC Center, leading up to the opening of A Christmas Tale on November 14 in an exclusive premiere engagement.

With so much honor being heaped upon Desplechin, this might be the right moment to think about another of his distinctions, and a very curious one: he is contemporary cinema’s most Jewish non-Jewish director. Though as Catholic in upbringing as Almodóvar, Desplechin populates the margins of his films, and sometimes their centers, with surprise Jews, phantom Jews, Jews who wear their identity as openly as a badge.

An example of the first category would be a supporting character in Kings and Queen (2004): the lawyer who springs the film’s picaresque hero out of various jams. As quick to raid a pharmacy for cool drugs as he is to befuddle a court with pleas, the lawyer appears to be defined well enough just as a sleek mischief-maker—but then, midway through the movie, he gets a surplus bit of characterization when he unexpectedly shows up in a yarmulke. Who knew?

The second category, that of Jews who fade in and out of sight, might be represented by a colleague of the main character in Desplechin’s breakthrough film, La Sentinelle (1992). In this enigmatic post–Cold War tale of intrigue, the protagonist is a student of forensic medicine who suddenly finds that many decades of recent European history—of mass murder and shadowy betrayals—have somehow become his legacy, in the form of an unidentified shrunken head. While the heir keeps this creepy, fascinating object a secret, a fellow intern in his lab nevertheless adopts a sharp-eyed attitude toward him, as if sensing that the student might bear some guilt. What motivates this indignation, this righteousness? The protagonist finally comes out and asks if his critic is Jewish—a question that provokes even more disapproval.

In case it should sound as if Desplechin’s maybe-Jews are an unpleasant lot, let me give a contrasting example: the old father in A Christmas Tale. A wise man, good-humored despite his troubles and free of all vanity, this character might be said to look Jewish, bears the vaguely Jewish first name of Abel, and works in a business (textiles) often associated with Jews. Of course, none of this nails him—but the odds on his Jewishness do go up toward the end of the film, when he tells his daughter to do something because “It’s a mitzvah.”

Leading Desplechin’s list in the category of self-assertive Jews is Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), girlfriend of one of the siblings in A Christmas Tale, who comes unannounced to the annual family gathering wearing a Star of David around her neck. She stays a couple of days, smiling ironically at one and all, and then leaves for the train station before the holiday starts, explaining to her boyfriend (Mathieu Amalric) that she doesn’t like Christians. This insult might or might not apply to him, given his status as a maybe-Jew. (His mother, played by the emphatically non-Jewish Catherine Deneuve, refers to him with cheerful contempt as her “petit juif,” or little Jew—French slang for the funnybone.) In any event, he doesn’t chafe at Faunia’s prejudice. “At midnight,” he lovingly tells her, “we’ll go out in the backyard and crucify ourselves.”

A proliferation of Jews. What reason does Desplechin give for multiplying them in his work? To one interviewer, Tom Hall of indieWIRE, he explained in 2005 that his motivation is political:

As a 60’s-Catholic-French-extreme-leftist kid, I’ve been raised among Jews. It’s so much a part of my childhood, of my family, of all the friends, books and films I loved. I would hate to paint France as a country full of boring French Christian white folks! And it would be a lie….France without Marcel Proust? No way!

Similarly, speaking in 2005 with Michael Fox of the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, Desplechin accounted for his many Jewish characters by insisting on the multi-ethnic character of France, and of French film history: “Perhaps it’s my memories of Jean Renoir films, where you can’t say which character is Jewish or not.”

All this is admirable—but it doesn’t get past the Jewish test case in Desplechin’s filmography: the heroine of Esther Kahn (2000).

She occupies a category of her own, as the sole Desplechin character to date who is both unambiguously Jewish and the center of the story. This makes her extremely odd—not only because Desplechin’s stories usually don’t have centers, but because Esther Kahn is his only film set outside of present-day France. Based on a story by Arthur Symons, it takes place in 19th-century London and was shot on location, in English, with the American actress Summer Phoenix in the lead.

The daughter of poor immigrants, Esther lives in a world of sweatshops and bitter family squabbles, to which she contributes her anger, mulishness, inarticulateness, stupidity. No one could be less cultured, or have less of a talent for expression—and yet Esther is determined to go on stage as an actress. For most of the film, you witness her fail and fail and fail again, to the point that her acting coach (Ian Holm) declares her a body without a soul. It’s only at the very end of the film that this unsuitable girl makes an unaccountable success of herself. You don’t see how she could have done it, and you don’t hear how, either—because Desplechin shows her talking on stage but cuts out the sound of her words.

What could have attracted Desplechin to this character? And why does it matter that she’s Jewish?

Again, Desplechin has proved to be enthusiastically cooperative with his interviewers. Speaking to Andrea Meyer of indieWIRE in 2002, he described the source story as

a spiritual adventure that asks questions. Do we have a soul? And if we don’t have a soul, what is it that we have inside of us?… Because Esther is so crude, she can admit that she has to become a human being…. She’s just a wild monkey, but by the end of the film, I think she’s a girl.

And I think this is a revelatory statement, coming from a filmmaker who had only recently worked with just such a beast. In the movie that preceded Esther KahnMy Sex Life, or How I Got Into an Argument (1996)—a professor of philosophy had gone about with a monkey as his research subject, pet and occasional interlocutor. In that case, the animal did not turn into a girl. But if it had, would that have meant that the monkey was a Jew? Perhaps Desplechin eventually had to go outside France, leaving his political conscience behind him, to confront his imaginary Jew in its raw form, as a monkey striving to develop a soul. This might be the essence of Esther Kahn’s Jewishness: that she is not one of those smooth, self-deprecating aristocrats that Marcel Dalio used to play for Renoir, not a brilliantly allusive talker out of Woody Allen’s films, but a mortal creature in a perpetual state of becoming.

By making this speculation, I don’t mean to say that Desplechin, an eminently democratic man, would think of Jews in a collective and belittling way. On the contrary. If there is a simian proto-Jew somewhere in Desplechin’s head, I suspect it must lie beneath his thoughts, where it would seem not at all belittling. It would be grand, in fact, provided you believe that our humanity isn’t given to us but must be attained. More principle than image, more impulse than stereotype, this proto-Jew would be a ceaseless spirit of self-transformation, a restless longing for self-knowledge. Something of this spirit seems to animate most of the characters in Desplechin’s films, no matter whether they’re tagged as Jews; but it’s the Semites and quasi-Semites, in their various forms, who particularly urge on the process.

Maybe Desplechin hints at this intuition in a name he’s assigned, more than once, to a struggling character: Paul Dedalus. In the works of James Joyce, of course, Dedalus is the continually evolving young man who wants to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. He figures out how to do it, too—and it’s a Jew who shows him how.

Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark.

Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark.