Misery loves company, and if you are anticipating a stressful holiday season due to an unavoidable reunion with family, in-laws or friends you’d rather not see – even if it is only a Zoom meeting – then you may find a kindred spirit among the dysfunctional gathering in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (French title: Un Conte de Noel).
Released in the U.S. just prior to the Yuletide season in 2008, this French import was lavishly praised by critics everywhere and was nominated for numerous awards including nine Césars (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) and the Golden Palm at Cannes. Despite all the acclaim and the high-profile cast, headlined by Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Roussillon, the film was not a big arthouse hit here. At best, it was a modest success but part of the problem may be due to the trailer for A Christmas Tale which makes it look like a Gallic version of Pieces of April or The Family Stone or some similar movie about families in crisis at holiday time. While there are moments of comedy to be sure, this particular multi-generational gathering is much more messed up and ambitious than any formulaic family tragi-comedy out of Hollywood.
It’s also one reason some American viewers found it annoying, unsatisfying and not what they expected from a Catherine Deneuve film. She might have star billing here but she is just one of many characters in the mix, not unlike the ensemble cast films of Robert Altman. Despite a few glimpses of some warmth behind the frosty facade, she is an enigmatic presence that exudes a sense of entitlement. And once you know her story, that’s completely understandable.
The storyline sounds like a made-for-TV tragedy-of-the-week movie but becomes something much richer and quirky in Desplechin’s hands. Junon (Deneuve), the matriarch of the Vuillard family, learns that she is dying from the same rare form of leukemia that killed her first child, Joseph, at an early age. Unless one of her children or grandchildren prove to be a suitable donor for a bone marrow transplant, agree to undergo tests to determine that and then consent, Junon will die. At the same time, there is no guarantee the bone marrow transplant will work either. Junon takes all of this in stride on the surface and at one point believes that it is probably easier to die than to subject herself and her family to the whole ordeal.
Junon isn’t the only one dealing with some major personal issues in the Vuillard clan which includes her clinically depressed playwright daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Paul (Emile Berling), Elizabeth’s suicidal teenage son, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), Juno’s youngest son, and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), who is harboring an unrequited love for Ivan’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). There is also Henri (Mathieu Amalric), Junon’s middle son and an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, whose string of financial and personal fuckups have led to his banishment from the family through Elizabeth’s intervention. As luck would have it, Henri is the only one besides Paul who is a suitable donor for Junon; all of which leads to a timely Christmas reunion and the first time Henri has been reunited with the clan in over five years. To mark the occasion he shows up with Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), his new Jewish girlfriend who is bemused by most of the Vuillard family’s behavior.
On a purely visual level, A Christmas Tale is lovely to behold and imaginative throughout with a seductive color palette and cluttered set design that provides subtle character details about the Vuillard household and their individual backstories. Desplechin doesn’t conform to any particular narrative device to tell his story and, in the tradition of the early French New Wave, allows himself the freedom to experiment and use a variety of techniques to best capture the mood or emotion of the moment.
For example, the mythology of the Vuillard family is dispensed with quickly in the opening moments of the movie via shadow puppets and, at one point, Junon directly addresses the camera with a monologue meant only for us. We are also privy to moments that could be hallucinations – Paul is haunted by his own smirking reflection in the mirror as well as a strange black dog that occasionally lurks in the background.
At other times we are shown past events as seen through the eyes of a particular character who has their own version of the truth (Elizabeth’s account of Henri’s bankruptcy trial). A breakfast gathering erupts into a physical fight between the obnoxious Henri and Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), Elizabeth’s outraged husband, with Desplechin reverting to a frantic hand-held camera to capture the emotional chaos. For another scene he switches back and forward from ground level shots of Henri staggering down a city street to a static wide shot of the disoriented character, falling straight forward and landing on his face. It’s a moment of deadpan slapstick humor worthy of Buster Keaton that is both funny and painful to watch.
Desplechin’s use of music throughout A Christmas Tale is equally innovative with snatches of Vivaldi, Otis Redding, Cecil Taylor and French hip-hop utilized to accent certain scenes. Some characters are even given musical motifs that resurface at certain moments such as the giddy Irish jig music that seems so appropriate for Henri’s renegade character. The director’s love of cinema is apparent as well – a fleeting homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo or glimpses of Funny Face, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Ten Commandments on the family’s TV. Desplechin and co-scenarist Emmanuel Bourdieu even work in references to their favorite poets, writers and literature (Emerson, Kafka, Nietzsche, etc.) either through on-screen quotes or recitation by members of the Vuillard family.
When you consider how unsympathetic and self-absorbed most of the Vuillard brood are, it’s rather remarkable that their problems and interactions are engaging at all. Part of this is due to the inspired casting which gives Mathieu Amalric one of his most memorable roles. Amalric, who is in danger of becoming the most overexposed French actor since Gerard Depardieu, has been averaging between about four or seven films a year since 2004. Among these are such big budget blockbusters as Spielberg’s Munich (2005), the James Bond adventure Quantum of Solace (2008) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) as well as critical faves like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Chicken with Plums (2011) and At Eternity’s Gate (2018). He may not be movie star handsome but he has the face of a great character actor, one that has a slightly haggard, world weary quality and eyes that scream out, “I need a good oculist!” Obviously he is Desplechin’s favorite go-to actor because they have collaborated together on seven of the director’s 11 feature films to date; Amalric first appeared in a smaller role in La Sentinelle and was the lead actor in their last film to date, Ismael’s Ghosts (2017).
Amalric also reminds me a little bit of Roman Polanski and I found out that he is of Polish descent and his mother was born in the same village where Polanski’s family lived before WWII. I think A Christmas Tale is my favorite among his many roles because he pulls off the difficult balancing act of being both abrasive and sympathetic while serving as a catalyst for the family dynamics that occur. Catherine Deneuve is also not afraid to trade her glamorous image for a woman who looks her age and can be completely alienating to family – and viewers. It’s also interesting to see Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, playing Deneuve’s daughter-in-law on screen. Oddly enough, she looks more like Susan Sarandon than either of her parents. Maybe that’s because she’s really the love child of Deneuve and Sarandon from their coupling in The Hunger in 1983. As a contrast, Jean-Paul Roussillon as Abel, the family patriarch, is the epitome of human warmth and generosity of spirit that provides a moral anchor for the family.
I had only seen two of the eight films Desplechin directed prior to A Christmas Tale and wasn’t converted into a fan by either. La Sentinelle (1992) had an initially intriguing premise involving the discovery of a shrunken head in a traveler’s suitcase that evolved into a ponderous 139 minute tale about identity, and Kings & Queens (2004), featuring almost half of the cast of A Christmas Tale, was an operatic soap opera with parallel storylines and characters that occasionally felt contrived and not worthy of the 150 minute running time. Desplechin doesn’t seem bound by any length considerations and most of his passionate defenders seem to feel he needs a bigger canvas of time to fulfill his ambitions. In my opinion, A Christmas Tale has improved upon the more successful aspects of Kings & Queens while also adding a touch of magic realism and lightness of tone in spite of its emotional intensity. It is, as expected, another sprawling human drama – 150 minutes – but much more rewarding and one that will probably yield deeper meanings and complexities upon repeated viewings.
If A Christmas Tale does tend to overstay its welcome in the end, that seems completely appropriate because most holiday reunions become tiresome as the days dwindle on and people revert back to old behaviors. A Christmas Tale captures all of this vividly and it proves, as the DVD liner notes by Phillip Lopate state, “the family unit is inescapable.” It all adds up to a rich, dense plum pudding of a movie with a bitter, underlying taste and is a perfect antidote to the countless repeats of Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas or some other Yuletide movie standard that no longer works for you on its umpteenth viewing.
A Christmas Tale was released by The Criterion Collection as a dual format Blu-Ray/DVD set in December 2009 and the extras include interviews with Desplechin, Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve on the making of the film, a 2007 documentary by Desplechin entitled L’Aimee and other features.
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