Outlier Looking In: Emmanuelle Devos in A Christmas Tale

Navigating A Christmas Tale with the aplomb of a tender spy, Emmanuelle Devos slips in a consummately observant and engaged performance in a role that’s wholly on the story’s periphery. Devos’s Faunia enters the picture late and exits early, materializing as a rank outlier caught up in the holiday vortex of the unruly Vulliard clan. Instead of letting herself be steamrolled by an overpowering brood—the mother is called Junon, after the goddess—she’s a sardonic isle of stability in the bipolar midst of household turmoil. She communicates volumes of knowingness and forbearance with quick-change facial expressions or sidelong inflections, and brings a welcome skepticism into the hothouse where the Vuillards’ slapstick, self-mythologized familial dramas and pratfalls play out as though under a proscenium arch.

The way director Arnaud Desplechin tells it, this is a Shakespearean fable decked out like an imposing but tottering fir tree, querulous, melancholic human ornaments dangling below the imperious Christmas star/angel that is Catherine Deneuve’s Junon. Where Faunia could all too easily get lost in this shuffle, Devos projects the brisk assurance of a bomb-disposal expert clearing a cratered minefield, disarming human explosives.

They’re Christians—well, nominal Catholics—who trot out the seasonal rituals with sleepwalking gusto, whereas she’s Jewish, comfortably unsentimental, and dubious of their preening traditions and grudges. As the lover of Mathieu Amalric’s Henri (“Henri Misery,” his father dubs him), dragged along for a holiday visit, she reacts with measured affection, which has the effect of rendering her costar’s emotionally unbalanced character semi-sympathetic—her love grounds and humanizes him even as he’s flying off handle and hook with the aggrieved self-destructiveness of someone clasping the role of family fool to his bosom like an insecurity blanket.

“How can a pretty woman like you be with someone so impossible?” asks Abel, the beneficent father; that outwardly backhanded compliment actually points to Devos’s greatest strength. Her beauty isn’t rooted in conventionally “pretty” features like the film’s other women (and in films generally); her heroically outsized face and head have a compelling, imposing bluntness, as though designed for cutting through social niceties (or absurd squabbles) like a force of self-possessed nature.

Faunia’s enchanting because she doesn’t aim for enchantment: her fascination lies in her practically carnal independence and forthrightness, her unfiltered regard for truth and ambiguity alike. Thus Devos escapes the dreaded “girlfriend trap” by conveying a notion that we are only seeing about five to ten percent of Faunia in any situation: precisely as much as the character wills us to see. When she leans her head into Henri’s shoulder, she communicates more than all the expository backstory in that scene, mainly because that is such an unpremeditated, not at all characteristic gesture. The same goes for the impulsive holiday drawing of a little heart on Henri’s disturbed cousin Paul’s wrist, which takes the poor—lucky?—boy’s breath away.

Refusing to bow to appendage status, she stands back, dissolving expectations. There’s joy in watching a maverick like this play off—and with—flashier performers and their more readily legible, edible performances. Faunia is one of the only characters we don’t get enough of—Desplechin gives just the right dosage of Amalric’s domestic pyromania and Deneuve’s magnificent dourness, Anne Cosigny’s saturnine Elizabeth and Chiarra Mastroianni’s depleted, persevering Sylvia; Jean-Paul Roussillon’s Abel is the only other figure who could do with more screen time. I can even imagine a short film with just the two of them sitting around a kitchen table, a bourgeois garden gnome incongruously lost in the music of Monk or Cecil Taylor, serene Faunia drinking coffee and smoking like a Cheshire chimney.

As Desplechin infuses the movie with jazz, I can’t help thinking Devos here has something of the against-the-grain determination that jazz women—especially instrumentalists—needed to navigate the music’s patriarchy. The nuclear Vulliard family is no less a dynamic of competition and cooperation, battle lines and fortifications against the outside world (even if it is a matriarchy). Her persistence conveys a wondrous mix of dissonance and lyricism, a mode redolent of underappreciated geniuses like Mary Lou Williams or Irène Schweizer, hitting original, swinging, organic notes as naturally as breathing.

As a role that by necessity is delivered in glances, reactions, and asides, the outsider isn’t given one of the family’s many revelatory or obfuscating soliloquies. Devos must play the sentinel—the bullshit detector—while always being seen in passing. She is a mirror taking everything in: reflecting them as they are and not as they imagine or represent themselves (their interior monologues all addressing a jury of imagined peers, seeking damages and acknowledgment).

The scene below captures the subtlety and fortitude in her performance. Playing in different registers in the aftermath of a showboating, infantile brawl, her melancholy indulgence, disbelieving amusement, and deep understanding leaven Desplechin’s claustrophobic focus.

Her acting is never an either/or proposition: she is the most modern, natural person in Desplechin’s film (I’m tempted to say films), and nonetheless she can match Deneuve for sheer camera-commandeering gravity.

You could remove every brief, beautifully variegated scene she’s in and the movie would still make sense; the plot pieces would still fit together. But the texture would be altogether different. There would be a void: noise where her thoughtful silence and laughter resided. For Devos is the ambivalent Jewish heart and soul of A Christmas Tale.

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