A Christmas Tale
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, and Jean-Paul Roussillon
The French movie character, with its wildly shifting eyes, deep self consciousness, and ever-looming misery, never ceases to be endlessly thought-provoking. Throw a bunch of these creatures together in the days preceding Christmas, and you’ve got the emotional bloodbath equivalent of Kill Bill.
A Christmas Tale is the typical American holiday drama done elegantly and boldly in the French fashion. It is a dysfunctional family coming together during the holiday, and yes, mother is dying of cancer. The movie succeeds because disease is a theme and not a plot point. Cancer of one form or another has eaten away at this family’s soul for years; Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is suffering from the same form of cancer that killed her four-year-old son decades ago.
The big reveal of this disease does not come at a dinner table, and it certainly doesn’t break a chipper mood. It is the sole reason for these bitter, depressed people to gather at all. Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) banished her troubled younger brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) from family gatherings years ago as a condition for bailing him out of debt. There are several more subplots intricately woven into this movie, but this is the big one. It runs like an infected blood vessel through the movie’s core.
So far, it sounds like the family is tearing each other to shreds from start to finish. This isn’t so. The characters in this movie are volatile, insecure, and angry people, but they are people. They feel the full spectrum of emotions, sometimes within a single scene. The hatred of the Vuillard family comes with a smile and a knowing nod more often than with a fist.
The verbal warfare is waged by one hell of an ensemble. Desplechin has a gift with actors, not that he needs to with such French acting titans as Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric. They both deliver extraordinary performances; one as ill-stricken matriarch and the other as cast out family degenerate. Deneuve in particular steals the show as a proud, bitter woman forced to turn to a son for help that she resents even having after her first-born died. It’s a powerful portrayal, and one of the finest of this screen legend’s career.
The two semi-famous actors aren’t the only ones worthy of praise. Add in Anne Consigny as the oldest sibling bitter over life and her psychotic son and Jean-Paul Roussillon as the loving father besieged by hate on all sides, and you have a Christmas package ready to blow any second.
For two-and-a-half hours, Desplechin sustains this highly combustible glass house of emotions. He does it with a keen, near-perfect visual sense, throwing in everything from split-screens to actors talking at the camera. It’s amazing that a movie with such a French sensibility neither dulls the viewer nor make its characters seem overly-pretentious. This is an upper-middle class family with real psychological trauma thrust on it. The parents have lost a child, and the siblings can’t even remember what has unleashed their pent-up hatreds. And yet, despite it all, the movie is somewhat optimistic.
Though the members of the family willingly and casually voice their disgust for one another, Henri is still willing to give his mother the bone marrow transplant she needs. He does it to win some disturbing mind game and earn his place back in the family, but he does it nonetheless. She openly admits she doesn’t really love him, as he does to her, but something about the ties that bind hold this Christmas package together under the dimly lit tree.