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

From House of the Sleeping Beauties

In the moody House of the Sleeping Beauties, an aging widower fights despair with a succession of naked beauties, while in the sprawling A Christmas Tale, a family bickers around their mother’s terminal illness.

House of the Sleeping Beauties

Director: Vadim Glowna
Cast: Vadim Glowna, Angela Winkler, Maximilian Schell, Birol Ünel, Mona Glass, Marina Weis, Benjamin Cabuk, Peter Luppa
Length: 99
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: First Run Features
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2008-11-14 (General release)

A Christmas Tale

Director: Arnold Desplechin
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Anne Consigny, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto
Length: 150
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 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

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.