La Vie de morts, 1991

Even 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.

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