Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Change They Can Believe In

For much of 2008 we've heard the word "change" bandied about. Change is coming -- change we can believe in.  However, sometimes the change we most desperately need is actually the hardest to believe in -- especially when there are signs of hopelessness, helplessness or addictive behavior all around us.  

Because the Native American Indian community has struggled for years with unemployment, low self image, domestic violence, and substance abuse, it was no surprise to encounter a series of documentaries dealing with these issues on the program for the 33rd American Annual Indian Film Festival.  One of the shortest, a public service announcement entitled Hope on the Rez (which describes the opportunities created by the American Indian College Fund), proudly and eloquently speaks for itself:

In Mino Bimaadiziwin: Touching The Sky, 72 students at Southwest Collegiate (an Aboriginal boarding school in Winnipeg, Manitoba) bravely confront their substance abuse problems.  By accepting a challenge to abstain from mind-altering substances, they work hard to rediscover a cultural identity which once had no need for drugs and alcohol.  

Many of these students have already lost friends to suicide attempts, alcohol-fueled boating accidents, and other tragedies.  While their struggle to stay clean and sober is guided and buoyed by a strong circle of teachers, friends and substance abuse counselors, it is nevertheless a stiff challenge.   Not all of them make it through to the end of the program, but the ones who succeed are shown enjoying a reward trip.

For me, the most interesting of these documentaries was My Big Fat Diet.   It's no secret that I've been overweight for most of my life and have had diabetes for nearly 20 years.   In Mary Bissell's earthy documentary, members of the Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay (off the coast of Vancouver Island) are forced to confront the fact that they have steadily  been putting on weight as their diet has grown to include more and more carbohydrates.  

With their increasingly obese population at greater risk for diabetes and heart disease, the townsfolk decide to accept a challenge from their tribal chief:  eliminate sugar for a year by going back to the diet of their ancestors (who survived primarily on bacon, salmon, fish, and vegetables).  "No aboriginal language has a word for diabetes," notes Metis physician, Dr. Jay Wortman.

Under the nutritional supervision of Health Canada and the University of British Columbia, the island's residents agree to go cold turkey.   Over the course of a year's time, the study participants discover exciting new things that can be done with, of all things, cauliflower! Like most diabetics, they learn new ways to shop for groceries. 

Although the film often seems like the Aboriginal antithesis of Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me, My Big Fat Diet is an excellent teaching tool for newly-diagnosed diabetics who fear making adjustments in their lifestyles.  It shows how valuable community support can be to the process. Viewers will especially be thrilled by the "graduation ceremony" in which the town celebrates a collective weight loss of more than half a ton.

All of the above films, as stated, are documentaries.  But what happens when a piece of fiction seems just as real as any documentary?  It's a curious point raised by Arnaud Desplechin's new film, A Christmas Tale, which stars the always stunning Catherine Deneuve as a family matriarch newly diagnosed with cancer.  There are many ways in which Desplechin's film feels like a French counterpart to ABC's Brothers and Sisters, so first let's meet the main characters who drive the plot:

Like most trailers (whose aim is to sell tickets), this one leaves out a few salient points.  Deneuve's Junon is remarkably open about the fact that she doesn't really like some of her children. Despite the fact that her husband Abel (the delightful Jean-Paul Roussilon -- who at times bears a striking resemblance to a mischievious Peter Lorre) is obviously older than his wife, the two of them maintain a fairly active sex life.   

Two steps further down the family tree, Junon's manic depressive teenage grandson Paull (who has already made one suicide attempt) is also a compatible bone marrow donor. As her other grandchildren, Basile and Baptiste, Thomas and Clement Obled (two of the most adorable tykes ever to be seen on screen) nearly steal the movie whenever they are within camera range.

There is something unwritten in this film's script which, intentionally or not, sets it apart from all the other movies about dysfunctional families who gather for an important holiday and cannot stop acting out in the most self-destructive ways.  It took me a long time to figure out why the tone of A Christmas Tale was so different from say, Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays, Peter Hedges' Pieces of April, or Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking? 

And then it hit me.

It's not the fact that Junon must find a compatible bone marrow donor, or that her body might even reject the transplant.  Nor is it the fact that she can only buy so much time as she nears the end of her life.  The key to the puzzle is that, at least in this French family, everything does not revolve around the culinary success of the holiday dinner.  No one's self worth is inextricably tied into their ability to prepare or carve a turkey.  

That may sound like I'm pitting the traditions of an American Thanksgiving dinner against those of a Christmas dinner, but lots of people have turkey at Christmas.  Lots of families gather with just as much tension, sibling rivalry, and intergenerational animosity at either holiday.  However, because the French enjoy their food and wine 365 days a year, the triumph of any one meal as a culinary statement is far less important than the day-to-day management of their lives.

There are other touches which set this film apart, most noticeably the lighting (which has a much more natural glow than one finds in many American films).  Eric Gautier's cinematography puts a much softer frame around the story than one finds in similar films about dysfunctional families, which makes one wonder if the Vuillard family is actually more grounded than they give themselves credit for, or if the French simply lead more integrated lives.

The skilled ensemble includes Anne Consigny as the bitter and overly melancholic Elizabeth (who paid off Henri's debt on the condition that her brother be banned from all future family gatherings), Hippolyte Girardot as her husband Claude (who is frequently away on business), and Emile Berling as Paull, their sensitive, angst-ridden teenage son.

Mathieu Amalric has some wonderful moments as Henri, the black sheep of the family, who arrives for the family's Christmas reunion with a new lover.  As  a Jew who does not celebrate Christmas with an exchange of gifts, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos)  is mildly amused at all of the casual references to the anatomical "little Jew" in the Vuillard clan.

Melvil Poupad has strong masculine appeal as Junon's youngest son, Ivan, while Laurent Capelutto shines as his painfully shy cousin, the lovesick Simon who has always had a crush on Ivan's wife Sylvia (the beautiful Chiara Mastroianni).  Francoise Bertin gets a beautiful cameo as Roseaimee, the lesbian girlfriend of Abel's deceased mother, who is still considered to be a part of the family and who doesn't hesitate to share some loaded family secrets with the younger generation.

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