Dying on the Mind: ‘A Christmas Tale’ and ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’

2008-11-14 (General release)

Nobody is ever quite as naked as they are while on screen in a European film. It’s hard to pinpoint the reason for this, whether it’s the lighting or a Continental affection for casual disrobing. But whatever the reason for it, that particularly humane form of undress is put on generous display in Vadim Glowna’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, in which an old man without much reason to live goes to bed with a succession of beautiful, naked young women; but it’s not what you think.

Glowna is a cinematic jack-of-all-trades who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in House of the Sleeping Beauties; possibly he did the catering as well. In this adaptation of a 1961 novella by Yasunari Kawabata, Glowna plays Edmond, an aging Berlin widower whose wife and only child died some fifteen years earlier in a car crash that he believes may have actually been a suicide by his wife. Bereft of much of any reason to live, Edmond now spends his days in an autumnal funk, putting in hours at an office and confiding his lonely thoughts to a best friend, Kogi (Maximilian Schell). Fortunately for Edmond, Kogi—who seems to spend his time ruminating in a penthouse aerie that allows him vast vistas of grey Berliner sky to contemplate in thoughtfully poetic fashion—knows about a place where old men needing a little more zest in their lives are able to go.

That place is what would seem like a house of ill repute, but with an entirely different method of operation. When Edmond, downcast and grey, sagging from sadness and too many cigarettes, rings the bell, he is greeted by a madam (Angela Winkler) who certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype. Instead of the heavy-set veteran of decades spent appeasing fleshly appetites one would expect, Edmond is confronted by a hawk-faced woman who looks like she’d be better employed inspecting passports somewhere inside the Iron Curtain. The cordial but icy madam points Edmond toward the chamber where he’ll spend the night, but not before explaining a few things. There will be a beautiful young girl waiting for him in the room. She’ll be asleep. No matter what he does, she won’t wake up and the next day she won’t remember a thing. And he better not try any funny business, though short of putting his finger inside her mouth, it isn’t left that clear what funny business would entail. With that, Edmond is left to his devices, at which point viewers can begin to freely to delve into associations ranging from the Freudian to the necrophilic.

The world outside is cold, rainy, and lonely. Inside the bedchamber where Edmond self-consciously disrobes is a darkened fantasy of red lampshades and erotic oil paintings (contrasted against his sterile office tower and the crowded highways that bring him there) that surround the main exhibit: the girl. The attraction of the girls to a man like Edmond (and there is a different one mysteriously “prepared” for him each night he comes) seems obvious at first. This is man with nobody to talk to, besides Kogi and an office assistant whose advances he’s oblivious to. It’s a complete patriarchal fantasy scenario, with the sumptuously naked girls lolling under silken sheets and oblivious to all of Edmond’s ramblings; they are just the doll-like mirrors upon which he laments the sad facts of his life. Men understand little of women in this film; an exasperated blurt of “Frauen!” (Women!) is a common refrain.

Edmond toys with the idea of taking advantage of the girls, but the absolutism of their quietude seems to defeat him. Ultimately Edmond is happy to simply sleep, wrapped up in youthful limbs and the fresh smell of beauty. Things become more complicated, of course, with Edmond getting intimations of dark dealings going on with the house, and the madam warning him against the acquisition of “futile emotions.”

There is a Teutonic briskness to the story of House of the Sleeping Beauties that belies its rather fussy Japanese roots and keeps things moving even when there is actually little going on besides morbid ruminations and deep drifts of sleep. What Glowna finally gets at, through his unpretentious directorial style and movingly self-effacing performance, is the graying of morality that comes with the perceived onset of death, and the overwhelming, primitive need for responsive speech, masked as it often is by a web of smoke and drink. In the end, mere beauty is not enough.

The fog of cigarettes, alcohol, and death is maybe not quite as thick in Arnold Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, but it’s also rarely if ever far from view. From the ads one might have thought that the film Desplechin (Kings and Queen) had in mind was a Gallic take on that solid Hollywood tradition: the home for the holidays film. In that sort of film, a far-flung and disparate family gathers at the old manse over one emotion-choked holiday season, exchanging gifts and barbed badinage. Over the period of a few short and very long days they drive each other insane with their differences before realizing in the end that all they really have is family (a terminal illness is often involved). All of that is certainly on display in A Christmas Tale, a film that manages to flirt with the genre while transcending it, not always to good effect.

Over the course of about two and a half hours, Desplechin (who co-wrote the playfully wordy script with Emmanuel Bourdieu) splays out the multifarious problems and disaffections of the Vuillard family as they gather for another Christmas weekend that promises to hold its fair share of drama. The eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), an overly responsible playwright, has actually banished her ne’er-do-well brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) from family gatherings she is also attending some five years prior; now he is going to come home with his newest girlfriend. Matriarch Junon (a cool Catherine Deneuve, allowing hardly an ounce of warmth to escape her chilly orbit) is dying of a leukemia whose only reasonable cure is a dangerous marrow transfusion that could kill her all on its own; the whole family is being checked for compatibility. There’s sad-sack cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), Elizabeth’s despondently depressed teenage son Paul (Emile Berling), and her mathematician husband who can’t see Henri without wanting to sock him in the jaw. Grievances will be aired.

Despite this melodramatic confluence of people and backstory, A Christmas Tale never aims to hit that frothy crescendo of manic, cutesy squabbling so favored by the family holiday genre. There is real dysfunction here, and not much warmth. Although the outrageously overtalented Alamric could easily have played him as such, Henri isn’t a loveable scamp, he’s a true screwup who can’t go five minutes without getting roaring drunk and insulting everyone within earshot. Elizabeth certainly had reason to cut him from her life, but there’s still something missing with her, a emotive hole that leaves her heaving with desperate sadness.

For her part, Junon (who seems to have set the tone for the Vuillards, more than her roly-poly and gregarious husband Abel) isn’t just cool, she’s like ice, making anti-Semitic remarks one moment and calmly calculating which of her children she actually likes best the next. She’s dying slowly and furious that she must rely on her children to save her. Sarcasm is her preferred tone (“Thanks to my disease, we’re being reunited”) when she’s not aiming for the purely monstrous (“Henri comes from my womb. I’m taking back what’s mine.”).

Gifted with some truly novelistic sprawl and a family of impressive talent and quirk, A Christmas Tale plays at times like The Royal Tenenbaums without the twee affectations but nearly all the humor. The result falls somewhere between that style of big and messy drama and the more codified stylings of the holiday film, filling that uneasy gap with many excellent performances but also some windy passages that don’t go much of anywhere. Although a Christmas film, the holiday itself serves as only the barest respite from a family rapidly cycling between squabbling, stiff silence, and playful animosity. At the end of the day, they will still have to deal with a mother who’s dying and being part of a family that doesn’t seem to be sure they even like each other. In the meantime, there are cigarettes to smoke and arguments to have; death can wait.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale