Henri is the ghost wolf who stalks the homely corridors, banished to the familial badlands: but even bad blood is thicker than water. Director Arnuad Desplechin’s chaotic portrait of a dyslexic family runs deep into the vein of emotion and duty, bonds that hold power stronger than steel…and also carry the anchor weight of guilt and denial.
This is a theme that Wes Anderson attempts to consistently remake but his stories are often bogged down in quirky antics instead of examining the realistic gut-wrenching sacrifices and jealousies that sometimes exist between siblings and their parents. Christmas is only the McGuffin, a plot device used to bring the family together so we can experience their turmoil and grief as the Matriarch is dying from a rare form of blood cancer. Desplechin begins the film with a child’s shadow play, stick figures that tell the family’s history, creating a series of dark and brooding caricatures. Henri is the outcast and his mother Junon makes it clear that he was conceived in hopes of saving their dying child Joseph, but his bone marrow was not compatible: he was a failure from the very beginning. Henri’s sister Elizabeth holds some unexplained and deep rooted contempt for her brother, possibly because her own son is very much like him: both suffer from mental illness. It is no coincidence that Henri and his nephew are the only family members whose bone marrow can now save Junon, and Henri makes the sacrifice despite being denied Junon’s love.
The film’s structure is like a scrapbook of fond memories and regrets, a novel whose perspective changes from chapter to chapter yet describing a brief and intimate portrait of each participant. The mood changes from humor to betrayal seemingly at a whim while the underlying malignancy remains distant, as if acknowledging this tumorous disease is accepting death. Desplechin films the medical act in sterile detail, never withholding the painful truth, and in a wonderful scene Henri’s bone marrow is delivered to Junon like a newborn infant…the son giving (re)birth to the mother. We are left in a midwinter’s night dream.
Final Grade: (B)