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The holidays are for family fighting in A Christmas Tale

You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.

The logline for Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 film A Christmas Tale might read something like this: With the matriarch of a large, dysfunctional family needing a bone marrow transplant, her children and grandchildren gather for an emotional Christmas at home. Take away the “bone marrow transplant” part—and replace it, if you’d like, with some other malady or terminal illness—and there’s no real difference between Desplechin’s premise and that of countless holiday narratives that clog the arteries like waterboarding with eggnog. In these films, Christmas becomes a cloying deus ex machina, the heartwarming thing that straightens out complications, salves wounded relationships, and leaves families—the ones on the screen and off—feeling restored and affirmed, and ready for the new year. 

But here’s the funny trick of A Christmas Tale: It’s totally guilty of doing this very thing, yet it radically subverts it at the same time. Desplechin has made a film that’s as warm as a reindeer sweater, where family members at war with each other find some kind of peace—or, barring that, at least engage in conversations that are open and honest, and steer them away from permanent estrangement. Truth be told, they fight and fight and fight, drunkenly and often belligerently, but it cannot be argued that the old home where they gather is “full of life,” and the soundtrack pulses with eclectic Christmas songs on vinyl. In other words, Desplechin believes in family and Christmas and all the usual bromides, but he doesn’t believe in bullshit, which is what makes A Christmas Tale something special. The family that bickers together sticks together. 

My first experience with Desplechin was his great 1996 film My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument, a three-hour relationship piece that’s every bit as wrung-out as its title. Desplechin films like My Sex Life…, Kings And Queen, and A Christmas Tale are both thrilling and utterly exhausting, unloading a fusillade of subplots, vignettes, New Wave-style stylistic feints, and talk, talk, talk to express the complicated relationships between his characters and a world in which they tend to exist uneasily. The difference with A Christmas Tale is that it tries to express, at its heart, the many ways in which a family is bonded despite the internecine squabbles that bubble up within it. And that realization is as heartwarming as this film is going to get, which is to say plenty. 

Unfolding over a generous 150 minutes, A Christmas Tale spends the first 45 revealing every gnarly little branch on the family tree. The opening scene shows patriarch Jean-Paul Roussillon, the wisest and most even-tempered of the lot, eulogizing one of their four children, who died of a rare cancer at an early age. Now the same affliction has struck his wife, played by Catherine Deneuve, who needs a bone marrow transplant in order to survive, and has a 75 percent chance of dying regardless. She has to turn to her extended family to find a compatible donor, and with that the film gets a metaphor: The transplant itself stands a chance of killing her, so the person who donates could be key either to her salvation or her demise. Such is the (potentially toxic) importance of family. 

Roussillon and Deneuve’s surviving three children have their own issues: Their daughter Anne Consigny is an emotional basket case following a violent incident with her son that’s landed him in a psychiatric ward. She hasn’t spoken to her fuck-up brother Mathieu Amalric in the five years since bailing him out of debt in court for a failed business venture, under the condition that they never occupy the same room together again. A third sibling, played by Melvil Poupaud, tries to be the friendly intermediary, but he’s not without some volatility of his own, including a childhood of schizophrenic episodes that mirror those of Consigny’s son. When the entire family, including grandkids, is summoned for a mandatory holiday stay, there’s barely a nicety exchanged before they’re going at each other. 

There’s a key moment in A Christmas Tale where Roussillon, after a particularly fractious exchange at the dinner table, breaks off into the kitchen to pour himself more wine. At this point, he’s dealing with the dire uncertainty of his wife’s health and a bunch of grown children who have serious problems and are not getting along well. So why does he have a smile on his face? It’s here that we should realize, if we haven’t already, that such is the tenor of life in this household, which encourages frank talk and may well be strong enough to survive it. If family members are arguing fiercely with each other, that means there’s something important at stake between them. For Roussillon, the fact that Consigny was determined to cut off her brother altogether is the real tragedy; having them in the same room at Christmas may result in a lot of tension, but at least it’s a start. 

Desplechin deftly avoids the binaries of other holiday sweeteners: Discord and affection, conflict and resolution, first-act troubles and third-act solutions—none of these things are kept separate from each other. A Christmas Tale brings a complicated array of emotions into pleasing harmony. It’s every bit the feel-good affair that, say, Dan In Real Life or The Family Stone is, but Desplechin brings it across without being the least bit inclined to buff out the rough edges. As with Roussillon, it’s enough for him that this family is together—and here’s to Christmas for providing the occasion to make it happen. 

Now, will someone please pass the wine?