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January 5, 2006

La Vie de morts, 1991

vie_morts.gifEven from his first feature film La Vie des morts, Arnaud Desplechin was already establishing a quintessentially dynamic framework for his recurring themes on surrogacy, human idiosyncrasies, and the ephemeral nature of desire. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma writer Jean Douchet, Desplechin illustrates this envisioned (un)structure of relational roundelays in the composition of the film's opening sequence as Christian MacGillis (Thibault de Montalembert) observes his younger brother Yvan (Roch Leibovici) perched atop the trunk of a deciduous tree in the front yard and decides to join him in the tree pruning chore. The metaphoric image of haphazardly bifurcating limbs on the large, leafless tree being systematically cut down serves not only as a visual paradigm for the organic structure that would pervade Desplechin's subsequent films, but more immediately, as an analogy for the complex and seemingly inauspicious extended family history and pattern of pell-mell liaisons (that, for this particular weekend included a cousin, Bob's (Emmanuel Salinger) indecorous invitation of his girlfriend, Laurence (Emmanuelle Devos) to the somber occasion) that have converged on the MacGillis household for a death watch of their adoptive brother, an orphaned cousin named Patrick, after he is hospitalized for irreversible severe head injuries stemming from a suicide attempt. An early private conversation between Christian and his sister Pascale (Marianne Denicourt) reveals their concealed knowledge from other family members of Patrick's earlier suicide attempt, and begin to deliberate if they should now divulge this information to their parents who have been overcome by a sense of impotence and failure over the incident. Unfolding with an unexpected whimsicality, anarchic spirit, and gentle humor innate in everyday life as the MacGillis children alternately disparage and flirt with the hopelessly out of place Laurence, smoke pot, conjecture on the real motivation behind Patrick's suicide beyond the sanitized "official" family explanation, play practical jokes, and even attempt to cope with the personal crisis of a possible unexpected pregnancy, La Vie des morts reflects the existential need for reassurance through self-distraction and the conduct of everyday rituals within the collective crisis of imminent death. This theme of coexistent balance between the ritual of living and the process of dying is perhaps best illustrated in Pascale's early morning task at the conclusion of the film in a scenario that also prefigures Therese's self-induced mock birth and Léo's momentary hallucination in Playing 'In the Company of Men' - where blood becomes an interconnected symbol of life and death, genetic bond and surrogate transfiguration, innocence and moral stain - where biological processes trace the broader existential cycle of perpetual renewal.

Posted by acquarello on Jan 05, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Arnaud Desplechin


Acquarello, I haven't seen this one.
Wondering what you meant by: (un)structure? and surrogacy: how does that show up in Kings & Queen or La Sentinelle? (These are the films of his I've seen most recently and remember best.)

Posted by: girish on Jan 05, 2006 10:00 PM | Permalink

I meant (un)structure in the sense that his films look as though they're going in one direction then veer off, but in the end, it is tied to that original direction. So in a sense, on one side, it seems as though his structure is freeform, but in the end, it ends up being intentionally designed. In Kings and Queen, the early scenes seem to be leaning towards the relationship between Nora and her father, but evolves into Nora trying to find a father for her son. That search is not only a surrogate for the husband and father figure who, in hindsight, never truly was, but it also reflects the reality of the relationship with her own father, where seeming acts of intimacy like getting the perfect artwork for her father actually prove hollow, and the "affection" between them is never really reciprocated, if it even existed. In this case, the story seems to go off into a tangent, but comes right back to same representational relationship.

I haven't seen La Sentinelle in a long time, but if I remember correctly, the mummified head was also a surrogate for Salinger's character in the sense that his identity was also ambiguous (he's not technically French because his father actually moved to France as a diplomat), so the search to find the head's identity is also tied into his own search to define who he is as well.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 06, 2006 8:28 AM | Permalink

Ah yes, I see both points. Nice; thanks, A.
I was so completely thrown off by the structural dissonances of Kings & Queen that after about forty-five minutes, I was ready to walk out!
And then the coin dropped a little later.
Turned out the first forty-five minutes, in retrospect, were amazing. It just took me a while to see that...

Posted by: girish on Jan 06, 2006 9:45 AM | Permalink

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