The Vuillard family gathers: Junon and Abel, a daughter Elizabeth and her son Paul, Henri and a girlfriend, Ivan, his wife Sylvia and their young sons, and cousin Simon. Six years before, Elizabeth paid Henri's debts and demanded he never see her again or visit their parents' home. Paul, at 16, has mental problems and faces a clinical exam. Junon learns she needs a bone marrow transplant if she's to live beyond a few months: thus the détente bringing all together. Two family members have compatible marrow, but the spats, fights, cruel words, drunken toasts, and somewhat civilized bad behavior threaten all; plus Junon may simply refuse treatment. Do we know ourselves?Written by
a big book of a film, with some invention and strong acting, that is too long
I got to hand it to the filmmaker, Arnaud Desplechin, at least on one significant point: A Christmas Tale is like a big book faithfully adapted to the screen, only in this case non-existent, and it has that wonderful if imperfect feeling of surrounding oneself with the world and atmosphere and attitudes of a family where the dysfunction runs deep and clear, emphasizing Tolstoy's classic "no one unhappy family is the same" credo. His film is also sometimes a big melodrama, folded around a cancer story not unlike a more serious (yet sometimes lighter version of) The Royal Tenenbaums, and centered so firmly around the family during that crazy but loving-despite-everything time of Christmas you'd swear Desplechin watched the first hour of Fanny & Alexander too many times to count.
At the same time A Christmas Tale in very much a French film, is attitude and approach to narrative and occasionally nearing that dreaded P-word (pretentious) in being 2 1/2 hours of incidents and confrontations and little details and twists. A lot happens with the Vuillard family over a few days, but in it uncovers a whole can of worms involving a banished son (Mathieu Amalric, who thankfully is maybe the centerpiece of the ensemble in terms of being the black sheep like Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married), a depressed daughter (Anne Consigny who, despite being effective in a one-note performance, is also so shrill and cold as a character it's hard to feel anything for her, at all, despite her plight of losing her older brother as a child), and a cousin who has loved his cousin's wife ever since he got him, Ivan, the youngest Vuillard brother, to hook up with her so many years ago. Meanwhile, the mother (Catherine Deneuve, who may not exactly be a great actress but is the greatest living female French star which carries a lot of weight as a true beauty), has cancer, possibly terminal, unless a donor comes forward.
So there's a lot here to work with - maybe, perhaps, arguably too much, though it's almost a credit to the director that I can't say exactly what (little things, for example, like the Christmas Eve sex scene are deliberately paced but for good reason), and he laces everything with a curious jazz score throughout, sometimes to great effect and sometimes not. But, at the least, it's wonderful to see so many good actors in one place, particularly Amalric who is quickly becoming a truly fantastic talent with a lot of range in the work I've seen him in- one day he's a subdued intelligence man in Munich, next he's paralyzed except for one eye-blinking in Diving Bell, and even a 007 villain- and here goes further in a scene stealing performance (one such scene is his toast at the Christmas dinner, a scene actually shocking and hilarious and sad all in a thirty-second split).
He and Deneuve and the underrated Jean-Paul Roussillon as the husband of Junon almost make me want to rate the movie higher. But alas, it is what it is: a very strong take on a familiar subject - crazy and light and dark and tragic and unnerving times with a family at Christmas - and standing it on its head, while also the things I mention above. Did I mention it's French? 7.5/10
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