Christmas Tale, A (France, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Christmas Tale, A Poster

Christmas movies and dysfunctional families go together like hands and gloves. Whether a comedy or a drama, from the absurd to the sublime, Christmas trees are often coupled with family divisions. While films like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and the upcoming Four Christmases may play up the humorous elements inherent in divided families, director Arnaud Desplechin has elected for something more emotionally potent. A Christmas Tale is not devoid of humor - in fact, there are times when the irony is thick and unavoidable - but this is most definitely not played for laughter. And, while it's not the complete downer that the description might suggest, neither is it an uplifting cup of holiday cheer.

It's important to pay careful attention to A Christmas Tale's opening segments. The movie boasts a large ensemble cast and it can take a score card to keep all the relationships straight, so learning who's who as they are introduced is a boon to a fuller appreciation of what follows. Inattentiveness during the movie's early scenes will not ruin the narrative progression, but there will be a "catch up" period during which the subtleties of how some of the characters interact may be lost.

A Christmas Tale introduces us to Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the matriarch and patriarch of the none-too-harmonious Vullard clan, whose roots are in the provincial French town of Roubaix (near the Belgian border). This Christmas, the entire family is gathering under one roof for the first time in six years. The visitors include the eldest surviving child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), and her emotionally withdrawn son, Paul (Emile Berling); the black sheep of the family, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and his bubbly lover, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos); the youngest son, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his devoted wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and their two young children; and Simon (Laurent Capelluto), the son of Junon's dead brother. But there's more to the occasion than merely a tense Christmas dinner. This is the "reunion" of Elizabeth and Henri, who don't like each other. It's a chance for Sylvia to learn how a secret from the past has shaped her life. And it may be the last holiday go-around for Junon, who has a rare form of leukemia. Without a blood marrow transplant, she will die. And, even with a transplant (Henri and Paul are compatible), she may still not survive. Against this backdrop, Christmas unfolds.

The primary fascination of A Christmas Tale lies in getting to know the characters. In part because of how Desplechin has established the story and in part because of the superlative performances of a superior group of actors, every man, woman, and child in this film becomes real and three-dimensional. The storytelling methods employed by the director are neither melodramatic nor sentimental. The film is less in-your-face than Jonathan Demme's not dissimilar Rachel Getting Married; the style is more elliptical and the consequential emotional payoffs are not as forceful. There are also a great many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions.

The film has two persistent and inescapable themes. The first relates to the undeniable pull of blood to blood. Many of the members of this clan may not like each other, but they are bound by ties stronger than personal animosity. The most obvious example of this can be found in the strained relationship between Junon and Henri. By all accounts, she was a cold, distant mother and he is an inconsiderate son. Yet he will be her donor, and not necessarily for altruistic motives. For her part, she expects nothing less of him - he came out of her womb so she's merely taking back something she gave him.

The second theme is that of isolation. At a time when the characters should be coming together and when, indeed, they are physically meeting under one roof, there are deep gulfs between them. Even the seemingly happy and loving Ivan and Sylvia find their intimacy threatened. The chasm between Elizabeth and Henri is deep and bitter yet, despite the rancor they display for one another, there are moments of surprising tenderness (such as when Elizabeth tends to wounds inflicted upon Henri during a bout of fisticuffs.) The instance when this family's divisions become apparent is when they all gather at a table for a meal and proceed to dine in silence.

Desplechin engorges the movie's generous 2 1/2-hour running length with as eclectic a selection of pop and literary references as one could desire. There are clips from The Ten Commandments, Funny Face, and the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream; musical cues span the gamut from traditional Christmas fare to offbeat jazz to Vivaldi; and there are quotes from Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Emerson. Visually, A Christmas Tale employs some potentially distracting New Wave-ish cues like irises and split-screens. Taken in concert, these elements raise a legitimate question about where the line lies between "literate" and "pretentious." There's no doubting that Desplechin is going for art, but does he overshoot the mark and create something that has moments of pomposity?

The film's success or failure depends almost entirely on a viewer's ability to relate to and become involved in the lives of the characters. We are with them for less than a week and, during that short time, we come to understand the lifetime of hurt and misunderstanding that stands between them. As in real life, many of these impediments are commonplace (banal even), but they work in this context because we care more about the characters than the workmanlike but unambitious plot strands that connect them. A Christmas Tale is long but it exerts enough of a pull that the 150 minutes pass rapidly, if not necessarily painlessly.

Christmas Tale, A (France, 2008)

Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-11-14
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1