A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)

Jean-Claude Lother-Why Not Productions / IFC Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

Jean-Claude Lother-Why Not Productions / IFC Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

Just hearing the title A Christmas Tale brings either of two things to mind: a warm, fuzzy Disney-produced, Chris Columbus-directed narrative about a child who ultimately discovers the importance of family unity over the holiday season, or a warm, fuzzy dramedy about a Dysfunctional (yes, with a capital “D”) adult family who ultimately discover the importance of family unity over the holiday season. So, you won’t be surprised to hear that the basic plot of French auteur Arnaud Desplechin’s most recent effort at first resembles the latter category. But A Christmas Tale is a far cry from the contrived stories of holiday (dis)unity we’ve seen in Hollywood films like The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays. The unique selling point of A Christmas Tale is that it is a dramedy in the truest sense, often engaging in high-stakes family drama while simultaneously carrying a genuine sense of humor.

A Christmas Tale’s running time is a daunting 150 minutes, but it hardly ever feels slow. There’s always something exciting happening with or between any of the members of this dysfunctional family (thankfully, this time with a lowercase “d”)—and if you’re turned off by one subplot, there are plenty more to keep you engaged along the way.

A Christmas Tale uses a relatively conventional and expected narrative trope for this genre: that of the dying elder member of the family, whose serious illness forces the widely strewn bloodline to reconvene, a reunion which, predictably, opens up its own set of wounds. The dying parent in question is Junon, played wonderfully by Catherine Deneuve, and her children carry dysfunctions aplenty. Junon’s daughter, Elisabeth (Anne Consigny), has a son, Paul (Emile Berling) going through a violent psychological meltdown; Junon’s oldest son, Henri (Munich and Diving Bell’s Mathieu Amalric, who steals the show), is in a continuing self-destructive state after losing his newlywed wife in a car crash, and has not seen Elisabeth in five years due to a contract he signed promising to never see her again (a contract he is clearly going to break)—oh, and he’s surprising his family with a new girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos); Junon’s youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), has a wife, Sylvia (Deneuve’s real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, who is the spitting image of her father Marcello) who is struggling to figure out what life would have been like had she married Ivan’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) instead.

Enough drama for you yet? Well, Junon has leukemia, the same disease that killed her oldest child when he was six years old, and she requires a blood marrow transplant. Who are the only blood type matches amongst her offspring? Junon’s out-of-control son Henri (who refers to his mother as his “father’s wife”) and mentally unstable grandson Paul.

While this seems like the perfect setup for contrived melodrama, A Christmas Tale retains believability along the way, and this great ensemble of actors genuinely feel like they’ve spent decades getting on each other’s nerves. The compatibility and chemistry between these performers, and all their characters’ fascinating but never quirky eccentricities, allow for the comedy to flow naturally from the many deadly serious goings-on. Desplechin understands the absurdities of the roller coaster drama of family life–that the harshest moments in life can be the most revealing and hilarious, rather than segmenting family life between separate episodes of comedy and drama.

This is not to say that Desplechin engages in a straightforward approach, as the film is stocked with fresh formal devices, from the drama’s broad range of musical accompaniments to the poetic moments when characters address the fourth wall to reveal how very much heartbroken they are by another family member. However, Desplechin’s distinctive approach occasionally runneth over in its formal bombardment, especially the music’s tendency to drastically and instantaneously change the film’s tone, which sometimes prevents one from fully engaging in the moment on screen with these great characters.

“Family” as articulated in A Christmas Tale is not a group of people you are required to love, but rather the cards you are dealt: a lot with whom, by consequence, you must expunge your personal demons every few years or so. This is not to say A Christmas Tale offers a cynical view of family. On the contrary, the adults are often humorously frank about their preference for certain family members, and this is balanced with many moments of authentic warmth that remind you why you love to hate those that might not know you best, but know you most.

© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.

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  1. Criterion Files #492: A Christmas Tale | Film School Rejects

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