A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale

Since 1996's My Sex
Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument
, a three-hour dissection of modern relationships
that's every bit as exhaustive as its title, restlessness and discord have been
the primary modes of Arnaud Desplechin's directorial career. Even a departure
like his underrated 2000 period piece Esther Kahn seemed perversely
idiosyncratic and confrontational, what with its deliberately blank lead
performance by Summer Phoenix and its plain, unburnished images of Victorian
England. So leave it to the ornery Desplechin to take the stuffing out of the
holiday movie with A Christmas Tale, which greets the season with the deep family
dysfunction that most films are anxious to salve in time for Midnight Mass.
It's the definition of a film meant to be admired more than loved, but
Desplechin's fierce intelligence and uncompromising sense of character come
through, as does some of the sharp wit and stylistic flourishes left over from
his last film, 2004's Kings And Queen.

Desplechin builds on what
seems like an invitation to gross sentimentality: Family matriarch Catherine
Deneuve has been diagnosed with leukemia, and she's looking for a compatible
donor to get the bone-marrow transplant she needs to survive. But her three
grown children are hard to get along with, and their narcissism doesn't well
serve this season of giving. Deneuve's daughter Anne Consigny, a scolding
playwright with a husband (Hippolyte Girardot) and a depressed son (Emile
Berling), hasn't spoken to her black-sheep brother Mathieu Amalric in five
years. The other sibling, Melvil Poupaud, tries to play friendly intermediary,
which proves difficult. When the entire family, grandkids included, returns
home for a long Christmas weekend, the traditional niceties quickly dissolve
into drunken feuding.

There isn't a single
stable creature among Desplechin's sprawling cast of characters, but he extends
great affection to them, much like a member of a bickering, cacophonous
household might jump to his family's defense if anyone impugned it. Deneuve's
quest for a donor provides the film with a neat metaphor for how families are
bonded by blood, or whether they can reject each other like a host body
reacting to an incompatible source. Though it looks as beautiful as the
happiest holiday, A Christmas Tale doesn't use the rituals of the season to gloss
over the longstanding disputes of people with very real problems. And for that
reason alone, it deserves respect.

Join the discussion...