JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Christmas Tale (Director: Arnaud Desplechin) - July 22, 2009

A Christmas Tale

Un conte de Noël

3 3
152 min.

Till life do us part

Dysfunctional families have long provided fodder for writers of all forms and styles. Plot lines swirling around murder, incest, all types of molestation and inheritance have entertained audiences since family histories were first dramatized with dialogue, costumes and sets. With so much material (it seems every family has a skeleton or two lurking in the generational weeds) to draw upon, there’s no end in sight for the personal-history genre.

But like gorging at the buffet table or Daytime Drinking (cross-reference below) an overabundance of troubling situations can swamp the familial narrative with too many threads, leaving the magic of interwoven-themes leading to any sort of resolution or revelation of truth in the wings, waiting hopelessly for their cue.

The team of Arnaud Desplechin (director/writer) and Emmanuel Bourdieu (co-writer) have rummaged around the Vuillard family vault and crafted a lengthy examination of desperation, despair and death that has enough storylines for three films.

At the centre of the action is matriarch Junon (stoically rendered by Catherine Deneuve). Her rare type of degenerative blood-cancer requires an equally uncommon donation of bone marrow: risks are high for both patient and “host.” Naturally, relatives come first in the hunt for the elixir of life.

This life-threatening illness is not entirely unexpected. The Roubaix couple’s first child, Joseph, was similarly sick all of his brief existence, dying at the tender age of six, even as his father, Abel (veteran Jean-Paul Roussillon) impregnated his wife a fourth time for a last-ditch attempt at conceiving the cure.

The surviving children (artfully brought into the picture before jumping ahead to the present where an extra-special Christmas celebration reunites the entire clan which extends to a pair of precocious grandchildren—Thomas and Clément Obled) have grown into adulthood with varying degrees of neuroses and addictions.

Elizabeth (Anne Consigny)—the eldest of the surviving children—informs her shrink that she’s sterile and angry: no one cares about her only child, Paul (an appropriately moody Emile Berling)—she really wants to bury someone but doesn’t know who that might be. Paul is currently in a mental-health institution, working on his own demons which include Anatole, a mythical black wolf that haunts the Vuillard manor.

Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), blissfully unaware that he owes his existence to a long-dead baby frère, appears to have the luck and love of the youngest. The exemplary DJ’s marriage to Sylvia—blessed with the aforementioned twins—seems to be the only solid relationship of the bunch. Henri (Mathieu Amalric) is the black sheep. For six years he’s paid the high price of family-gathering exile when his debts as a theatrical producer headlined a court appearance and humiliation. Elizabeth (herself a playwright) proved better than Shylock when her own reputation-saving money came with an unshakeable demand for her brother’s banishment.

Be that as it may, through a number of sibling interventions, everybody’s coming home for Christmas.

With so many personas, personalities and pasts gathered around the table, it soon becomes too big of an order to fully develop enough characters to draw the viewer into the film and begin to appreciate—much less care—about the outcomes. Not to be outdone, the original music from Grégoire Hetzel’s ever-inventive compositional and piano skills features nearly every form and style under the sun. Music from bygone eras—notably Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream (delivered a touch rough-and-ready by the unnamed orchestra) and string-rich Vivaldi—further adds to the sense that an overarching plan to marry all of the components into a malleable whole has been abandoned in favour of one more helping of story and some very snappy editing (Laurence Briaud).

Also born in Roubaix, it’s inevitable that at least some of the incidents have been culled from Desplechin‘s private recollections. But the capable filmmaker would be well-advised to follow the habits of most families and reveal his dirty laundry sparingly—one garment at a time. JWR

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