A Christmas Tale (IFC Films, NR)

film_xmas-tale_sm.jpgDesplechin hardly ever serves up the "traditional" and "expected" in A Christmas Tale.








There’s often something painfully attractive about dysfunctional family gatherings in film. The chronicles of a fucked-up family around a holiday or ceremony appeal to me not in that they trigger memories of my own familial soirées (they usually don’t), but in the respect that they bear no resemblance to the over-plotted, structure-based cinema most people are accustomed to. The results are often varied (in terms of weddings, Rachel Getting Married works; Margot at the Wedding doesn’t), but I always admire how important layers and guilt become in these situations over cause-and-effect and narrative drive.

For A Christmas Tale, writer/director Arnaud Desplechin offers his audience something most directors don’t, and that is a family history of the Vuillard’s, told in silhouettes and brief scenes that serve as a prelude to the turbulent holidays. What we learn: The eldest son of Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve) died during childhood; the only daughter Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) hates her good-for-nothing older brother Henri (the wonderful Mathieu Amalric, also of Diving Bell and a regular in Desplechin’s films), literally ex-communicating him from the family; the youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud of Time to Leave and Broken English) seems to be the only one who understands Elizabeth’s suicidal teenage son Paul (Emile Berling); and Junon has discovered that needs a bone marrow transplant.

Needless to say, particularly considering that the family has invited Henri to the celebration after over five years of near silence, this Christmas will go down in the history books for the Vuillard family. A Christmas Tale is typical in the way it allows for the family tension to rumble beneath the surface before revelations and confrontations take the foreground. It’s typical both in terms of the expectations of its type of film, but also in life, which makes those expectations seem warranted.

But Desplechin hardly ever serves up the "traditional" and "expected" here. The film is instantly remarkable, evoking the sort of awe in disposition that gives Gallic cinema its appeal. Mundane things like train rides brim with a ferocious energy, the sort of feel that lesser directors like Christophe Honoré often fail at evoking, despite their best efforts. In a motif he borrowed from his own Kings & Queen, Desplechin also allows for characters to address the camera, a shaky decision that he pulls off beautifully, from Deneuve’s introduction to the festivities to the spoken letters exchanged between Cosigny and Amalric to Chiara Mastroianni’s (who plays the wife of Poupaud) outer monologue. Desplechin’s stylistic decisions are always dangerous ones, and more so than in Kings & Queen, his ambition delivers (though I’m still unsure about the scenes he opens as if shooting through a peephole).

Rounding out the rest of the guest list are painter cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), the late grandmother’s lesbian lover Rosaimée (Françoise Bertin, a veteran of Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel and Claude Chabrol), Elizabeth’s sometimes-absent husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), Ivan and Sylvia’s two young sons, and Henri’s Jewish date Faunia (the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos of Read My Lips, another Desplechin regular), the latter of whom seems to like Henri for all the reasons his family doesn’t. It’s probably worth noting that all of the major actors in the film, aside from Poupaud, Bertin and Capelluto, had worked with the director at least once before, and so like most directors with a regular troupe of actors, Desplechin allows for a refreshing liberty with them, giving an uncommon beauty to the performances, particularly with Amalric and Devos who continue to work magnificently off one another. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Desplechin never allows for the physical similarities between Chaira Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, real-life mother and daughter who play relatives by marriage, to distract, giving the women plenty of distance within the frame.

A Christmas Tale, which surprised many critics by walking away empty-handed at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a minor masterpiece, remaining stunning and engaging for every one of its 150 minutes. At its best, A Christmas Tale displays a young director gathering maturity and control in his work. If Kings & Queen worked as a result of its sprawling ambition, present in both its successes and faults, A Christmas Tale is the one-upping of its predecessor, a handsome, chaotic, blissful depiction of the tribulations of blood ties. | Joe Bowman

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