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November 13, 2008

My SDFF - Slumdog/Christmas

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A Christmas Tale/Un conte de Noel
Arnaud Desplechin - 2008
IFC Films 35mm film

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Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan - 2008
Fox Searchlight/Warner Brothers 35mm film

I'm titling my pieces on the Denver International Film Festival, officially now known as the Starz Denver Film Festival (SDFF), in the possessive because this will not be definitive coverage. I'm not seeing everything at the festival. I don't want to see everything. What I am seeing and writing about is a combination of films that interest me, plus some choices based on the recommendations of everyone who has written back to me. I may be missing some great stuff but that's the change you take when there are so many choices. Some of the films I am seeing are also based on scheduling. Some of the films are already scheduled for commercial runs and are familiar based on the festival coverage of others. Hopefully, some of what I write will incite some interest in other films. The first films I have had the opportunity to see have been introduced at other festivals.

Suzanne Vega wrote a song, "Blood makes Noise", in reaction to learning the true identity of her father. I thought about that song during A Christmas Tale, almost immediately. Arnaud Desplechin's begins with the basic story of the Vuillards, a family that grew primarily with the intention of creating a sibling with compatible bone marrow to save the first born son. The son dies in childhood, and while the parents continue to adore each other, the surviving siblings have discordant relationships with each other as adults. The days leading up to Christmas are in part about finding a physically compatible family member when it is revealed that the mother has an illness. The mother may choose to bypass any cure that seems as terminal as lack of treatment. Adding to the discomfort is that the only child to be judged medically correct is the son with the least emotional attachment.

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While A Christmas Tale takes place during Christmas, the holiday is not the film's prime subject. Anyone looking for the warm fuzzies will more likely be confused and possible angry. What Desplechin's film examines is how tense, uncomfortable and sometimes outright disturbing family get-togethers can be, especially during a time geared around heightened expectations. The cast could be described as Desplechin's film family with Jean-Paul Roussillon as the family patriarch playing a character with the same name as his character in Desplechin's Kings and Queens. Emmanuelle Devos portrays the girlfriend to Mathieu Amalric, the prodigal son of the family. As Catherine Deneuve becomes more matronly in appearance, she makes me think of Simone Signoret in her later years. I am not as enthused as some others concerning Desplechin. For myself, Esther Khan is still the best of his films, although what I liked most about A Christmas Tale was the affection shown between Rousillon and Deneuve.

More heartwarming and more brutal is Slumdog Millionaire. In case no one has mentioned it, stay for the final credits. One of the features I like about Bollywood DVDs is you can see the musical numbers only. The credit sequence here is a Bollywood style dance number featuring the adult stars, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, alternating with the child counterparts. It's a joyous finale to a story about triumph following a series of devastating circumstances.

I have no familiarity with the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, although the synopsis indicates that much of the content was reworked. Hopefully the almost inevitable DVD commentary will also clarify how much of the film was directed by Danny Boyle and what parts were the work of Loveleen Tandan. The main thrust of the story is a series of flashbacks explaining how Mumbai "slumdog" Jamil was able to answer the questions in India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". The flashbacks also serve as an indictment about contemporary India, where the caste system may have been outlawed, but still exists, with abuse and death, or threats of death, towards the impoverished, Muslim, women and children.

Stories about people overcoming adversity tend to be sentimental favorites, and frequent Oscar bait, but Slumdog Millionaire may give audiences pause, especially those unfamiliar with the realities of Third World life. As in Boyle's previous films, money, or the lack of it, serves as a catalyst for the narrative, and having new found wealth is a blessing or a curse. The Indian pop music also provides the best soundtrack in Boyle's films since Trainspotting.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 13, 2008 12:22 AM


Thanks for the review of Slumdog Millionaire. Danny Boyle is one of my favorite modern/working directors and I'm itchin to see this. Hopefully I'll get eth chance to soon.

Posted by: Kimberly at November 15, 2008 09:11 PM

I'm not familiar with Desplechin's other work but I was not a fan of "A Christmas Tale". It really rubbed me the wrong way, I didn't care for any of the characters and by the middle, I started to get bored.

Posted by: Marina at November 18, 2008 07:14 PM