Film Review: A Christmas Tale

Apparently Families Suck No Matter What The Nationality

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
A Christmas Tale
A family so dysfunctional not even gravity works for them
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In reviewing Nothing Like the Holidays some months ago, I remarked that holiday-centric dysfunctional family dramas are best enacted by large, ethnic progeny. “If the family must be Caucasian,” I wrote, “at least make them a colorful Southern clan.” Mere weeks later and someone’s already trying to amend my rules.

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) come to us by way of France. It accomplishes much of what Nothing Like the Holidays did with its Puerto Rican cast, but with a good deal more class and an entirely Gallic group of performers. Our upper-middle-class family for this go-around is the Vuillards. Abel (longtime actor Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve, looking like–wow– Catherine Deneuve ) have been married for many decades. They have three grown children and a passel of grandchildren but are still haunted (figuratively) by the ghost of their first child, who died of leukemia at a very young age.

You’d think, a good 40 years on down the line, the Vuillards would have overcome their grief. For the most part, they have, but there’s something about that early death that hangs over them all. Grand-mère and Grand-père seem happy enough in their old age, but the sudden revelation that Junon is now suffering from the same blood disorder that struck down her firstborn casts a pall over the impending Christmas holiday and stirs up uncomfortable memories from yesteryear.

Arriving to help Junon through this frightening time are oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud). Thanks to a business deal gone wrong, scolding perfectionist Elizabeth has been carrying on an ugly feud with good-for-nothing con man Henri for the past five years–a row that resulted in Henri’s utter banishment from the family. Now, with Junon’s illness, Henri is back in the clan’s good graces–mostly because he happens to be a perfect bone marrow donor for his mother. This fact chafes at Elizabeth more than it probably should, indicating that the bad business deal was just the tip of the iceberg with these two scrappy siblings.

Of course, being a dysfunctional family drama, each blood relative and in-law is required to bring his or her own neuroses to the potluck. Ivan seems happily married to longtime sweetheart Sylvia, but she appears to have some serious unfinished business with Ivan’s cousin Simon. On top of dealing with her dying mother and troublemaking brother, Elizabeth’s trying to cope with her manic-depressive son Paull. And just to give us a hint that this bloodline has been coping with buried secrets for generations, we’ve got a special appearance by grandma’s “longtime female companion.” It’s a crowded house, all right, one that requires a bit of scorekeeping to sort out the various players.

The Christmas part of this tale is a bit of a ruse, mere background noise to the story unfolding under the crisp, cinematic gaze of writer-director Arnaud Desplechin (
La Vie Des Morts, La Sentinelle ). His broad cast and intimate tone hint at a French equivalent of Robert Altman, but A Christmas Tale is too composed, too polite to mirror the chaotic poetry of Altman. Instead, Desplechin takes his own sweet time watching this uncomfortable clan stew in its own juices. The typical American holiday-centric, dysfunctional family drama usually requires all players to kiss and make up by season’s end. But it’s clear from the start that Desplechin doesn’t believe in quick-fix solutions.

Some problems will be laid bare, others will be kept in the fuzzy dark of family history. Some people will make important life decisions, others will avoid them entirely. And closure? Well, that’s something that only happens in novels. There isn’t a stable character under Desplechin’s gaze, but he’s got a curious fondness for all of them–refusing to turn anyone into a saint or a monster. His cast is top-to-bottom impressive, with a special shout-out to Amalric, who–between this and
Quantum of Solace –seems to have nailed a particularly banal form of bad-boy narcissism.

At two-and-a-half hours and in no particular hurry to get where it’s going,
A Christmas Tale is a leisurely dose of voyeurism. Not all audiences will take to it, but those who do will find Desplechin’s cinematic scrapbook filled with emotion, wit and indelible snapshots–many of which might be more familiar than we wish to admit.
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