01 December 2008

What a Character!

If you've given any thought at all to seeing A Christmas Tale, or Un conte de Noël as it is known in France, don't hesitate. If you don't know what movie I'm talking about click on the title which will direct you to it on IMDb. There you can read a little about it and check out some of the reviews. Roger Ebert and Mick LaSalle have, as usual, particularly good ones.

And about those reviews, and about film comment in general -- ain't it interesting? Note how many different directions you can go in discussing a film. You can do the overall synopsis, discuss a theme, the direction, performances, any number of ways. And of course within those you can go in a lot of directions. What themes resonated with you about the film? Was a given film a searing look at contemporary values or an indictment of a corrupt judicial system or a reflection of the director's twisted psyche?

I pondered the many ways one could look at A Christmas Tale -- families, the mother, terminal illness, relationships -- and it helped me realize that in a lot of really good cinema the director paints on broad canvass. Also, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What a person picks up from such a film says something about them or at least their current state of mind.

With that as preamble I bring to you my favorite topic of this film, the character of Henri (he is played by Mathieu Amalric who has been visible a lot recently -- A Secret, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and even Quantum of Solace.)

Henri is a knave, a rogue, a scoundrel, a liar, a drunkard, a complete and utter sh*t. Yes, I loved the guy.

Some of the best characters in films are the type of people we'd despise in real life. Safely up their on the screen no danger to us they are colorful and interesting. We can't smell the booze they reek of, we don't feel their slaps, their insults are directed at another screen image. We get to enjoy the show.

Henri is so endearing despite his endless character flaws because he's so damn true to himself. He is completely and unadulteratedly himself. An ambiguous jerk is a disgusting jerk, give me mine pure. Yes it helps that Henri is a handsome bloke with requisite charms to get by and even a smashing looking girlfriend. After all, no one is 100% anything and besides a heel without some charm is unpalatable -- or Dick Cheney. Of course in the end, and this is no spoiler, he does the right thing. But the grand gesture the final sacrifice is easy for the unrepentant a**hole. It is consistently fouling the waters along the way that is the true mark of the douche bag.

Like many films A Christmas Tale needs its Henri. Other characters are complex and interesting but it is through the dirty rotten bum that their true natures can be best seen. He brings out the best and worst of others. (Actually that's quite a good way to judge character, put a group of people in a room for a few hours with real scumbag and see how they act.)

Another thing about Henri's character that is so successful is that he's so damn real. I've yet to encounter a Darth Vader or Liberty Valance but I've seen my share of Henri's. Indeed, I've little in common with Darth or Liberty but confess there's a bit of Henri in me -- so to speak.

So go, enjoy the picture. You may be more entranced by Catherine Deneveue's performance or this touching and funny look at a sprawling dysfunctional family, but you'll not miss Henri. Like any good jerk he's as obvious as the headache he's likely to cause.

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