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Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a French version of what's becoming an American standby, the 'reunion' drama about a large family that comes together for the holidays. The gathering serves as a forum to resolve generational disputes and sibling jealousies, and discover a new bond to hold the family together. Perhaps a son has a substance abuse problem, or a family secret will be revealed. Will dad accept the fact that his grandson is gay? Will the rich sister-in-law learn to be less of a snob?
A Christmas Tale follows this pattern quite faithfully, with the difference being that the individuals in the upscale French Vuillard family don't fit into easy categories and never fully explain themselves or their relationships. But they're a fascinating group from the start. Nobody would call the Vuillards dysfunctional, exactly, even though a serious fight could break out at any moment. Enough intrigues break out over the course of this lengthy but surprisingly swift moving tale to fuel a TV drama for a full season. The difference is that director Desplechin so carefully handles his cast, that every character seems an inspired original.
A hurried glimpse of past family history sets up the basic conflicts. Elderly parents Abel and Junon Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon & Catherine Deneuve) lost their first son Joseph to cancer at the age of six, a fact that haunts the family relationships. Abel is beyond retirement age but still runs a fabric dying plant; he's a sweet fellow and a calming influence. Junon is ill with the same rare cancer that took her son's life; a realist, she tends to keep herself a bit remote from the emotional fireworks around her.
If A Christmas Tale were an ordinary reunion drama the Vuillards would eventually put their differences aside, rally around Junon's health crisis and find transcendence in family values. Nothing of the sort happens here. Daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is a successful author yet a very bitter person. She has split the family in two by vowing never again to be in the presence of her younger brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric). An unapologetic, unpredictable black sheep, Henri has shown up just the same, refusing to play pariah and ready to cause more disturbances to force the issue out in the open. For starters, he provokes Elizabeth's husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) into punching him out at the dinner table.
Elizabeth wants Henri to steer clear of her problem son Paul (Emile Berling), an emotionally fragile young man clearly disturbed by his mother's obsessions. Henri has brought along his Jewish girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), who reacts to Henri's various outrages with an amusement that Junon does not share. At one point Faunia accompanies Junon on a shopping trip; Junon cooly abandons her in the middle of a store. The role fits Catherine Deneuve like a glove; her still-regal presence is the emotional hub of the story.
Also present are Henri and Elizabeth's mellow younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his cheerful wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and their two charming sons. All of the Vuillards play musical instruments, and Ivan accompanies the boys in a Christmas play reminiscent of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) is present as well. An unattached artist, Simon has been in love with Sylvia ever since he and Ivan met her. A very unusual romantic situation develops when Sylvia discovers that the cousins "decided" long ago, without informing her, that Ivan should be her mate. Sylvia is serious about her sexual independence and decides to spend Christmas Eve in Simon's bed. In this family anything seems to be possible.
Neither director Desplechin nor his co-author Emmanuel Bourdieu force resolutions onto their characters. Henri and Elizabeth's feud won't go away, no matter what Abel counsels; Elizabeth isn't fazed when her husband decides to finish the holidays somewhere else. Elizabeth is particularly upset when Henri's bone marrow turns out to be a match for Junon, a fact that the prodigal troublemaker rubs in her face. Young Paul takes a liking to Henri, to his mother's displeasure. The beautiful, somewhat aloof Junon uses her iffy prognosis to argue against the bone marrow procedure. There exists a possibility of a negative reaction to the treatment, which could actually do more harm than good. Hippolyte and Abel must use algebra to work out the probabilities on a chalkboard before Junon is convinced that going forward is the logical correct choice.
A Christmas Tale is a superior drama with witty dialogue and unusually intelligent performances from a fresh, attractive cast. The fact that the characterizations aren't spelled out for us makes them all the more intriguing. We see a courtroom flashback that casts Henri as a total sleaze, but it might be just a memory from Elizabeth's twisted point of view. So believable are the relationships, we forget that the director goes beyond naturalism to tell his story. The opening montage uses unattributed voiceovers and even shadow puppets; character monologues intrude here and there. At one point Madame Vuillard addresses the camera with a Jackie Kennedy- like tour of her grand town house. The slight air of magic is pointed up by references to A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its phantoms floating through the air. Ghosts and vendettas and holiday gifts of love are all part of the bargain, and the central mysteries will always be unresolved. The Vuillard family doesn't heal, exactly, but it does move forward.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a sterling introduction to this very accomplished French talent. The richly colored images are a transparent window into the many-faceted story. Desplechin has been directing for over fifteen years and both Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuele Devos have starred for him previously. The extras thoroughly convince us that this is classic-quality French filmmaking. The interview-driven piece Arnaud's Tale shows Desplechin, Amalric and Deneuve pleased to be working with such exceptional material. Adding an autobiographical touch is Desplechin's 2007 documentary L'aimée. As the family house goes on sale the director films his father talking about the beloved mother he never knew. Trailers and an insert essay by Philip Lopate finish the package.
A 2-Disc standard DVD release of A Christmas Tale is being made available at the same time, at the same price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Christmas Tale
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