Criterion // 2008 // 151 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 1st, 2009
All she wants for Christmas is some bone marrow.
"Why am I always so sad?"
Christmas is just a few days away, and the Vuillard family is gathering for the holidays. Alas, there is a dark cloud hanging over this year's gathering. Junon (Catherine Denueve, The Musketeer), the family matriarch, has announced that she is in poor health and that she will need a bone marrow transplant in order to survive beyond the next couple of years. As the family gathers, tests are taken as various family members attempt to determine whether or not they are compatible. Junon's husband is Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon, Kings and Queen), who is a kind and friendly family patriarch. Their eldest child is Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, Largo Winch), who has a teenage child named Paul (Emile Berling, Summer Hours). Next in line is Henri (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace), the emotionally and financially troubled black sheep of the family who has a particularly prickly relationship with Elizabeth. He brings his new girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, Coco Before Chanel) to the reunion with him. The youngest child is Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, Speed Racer), who is married to a woman named Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Ready to Wear). They have two young boys. Also in attendance is Simon (Laurent Capelluto, Everybody Is a Killer), Junon's supposedly untrustworthy nephew. Before this family's time together has concluded, old wounds will be re-opened, surprising revelations will be made, and Junon will find a potential donor or two. Ah, but that's only the beginning of this holiday tale...
Criterion's DVD packaging describes A Christmas Tale as a, "marvelously messy package," which is just about right. There are quite a few marvelous moments to be found in this film, as director Arnaud Desplechin reaches soaring heights of artistic beauty and emotional depth. It isn't able to maintain that measure of fascination with any sort of consistency, but it's always intriguing at the very least. The tone is all over the place, veering from comedy to tragedy, from highbrow to lowbrow, from the artsy to the earthy. Running a whopping 151 minutes, the film is an intimate epic of sorts, with a screenplay as loose as that of an Altman film being presented in a filmmaking style as precise and measured as Hitchcock.
Every year the world of cinema is presented with a new batch of holiday films, most of which are generally forgotten within a few years. I have a suspicion that A Christmas Tale will prove more resonant, as it strikes some atypical notes despite the typical plot set-up. The film is not played as a straightforward farce or as a mawkish tragedy, but as a gentle yet truthful dissection of a family that simultaneously seems on the verge of reaching some measure of healing and falling apart at the seams. The relationships and characters are very complex, and appropriately enough, the emotions generated by this film are equally so. So many films so aggressively tell you what to feel; it's refreshing to see a film (particularly a holiday film) that permits the viewer to pick their own sides and draw their own conclusions. This is accentuated by the very good Gregoire Hetzel score, which is emotionally loaded but almost maddeningly ambiguous when contrasted with what is occurring onscreen.
One of the most striking things about the film is the manner in which is approaches the subject of death. As Junon revealed her condition to her family members, I was surprised by the way each person reacted. Perhaps it says something about the French, or perhaps it says something about Junon specifically, but no one reacts with tremendous expressions of grief or sorrow. While no one is happy to hear the news, the conversation continues as if each person has just been told that there's going to be a thunderstorm later in the afternoon. Even Junon herself seems far more frightened by the pain of being pricked by a needle at the doctor's office that she does by the prospect of dying. In A Christmas Tale, death seems ominous and unfortunate, but it is most assuredly not regarded as the most horrible thing that could ever happen to a person.
Not content to simply observe his characters for 2½ hours, Desplechin takes a very proactive approach to the material, amusing himself with all manner of cinematic tricks and stylistic flourishes. This will undoubtedly be a divisive element, as some viewers may feel that the constant gimmickry (lots of irises, moments in which characters start addressing the camera directly, a bit of puppetry, shots that call lots of attention to themselves during character-driven moments, constant pop culture references both subtle and overt, etc.) distracts from the emotional core of the tale. Personally, I'm grateful for the director's sense of style. It provides another layer of intrigue during some of the rambling passages and gives the movie a sense of playful energy that I rather enjoyed.
The performances are strong across the board. Deneuve will be regarded as the biggest name in the cast for most viewers, and she has a way of quietly commanding the screen during her scenes (regardless of who she is sharing the screen with). However, I was particularly fond of Roussillon's turn as Abel, who is perhaps one of the most immediately likable members of the cast. His curmudgeonly charm is a more than welcome element. Consigny and Amalric have some excellent scenes; though her strongest moments tend to be internal while his are most assuredly external (Henri is a man who doesn't seem to know when to shut up). The very presence of the warm, assured Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of Deneuve and the great Marcello Mastroianni) is a considerable attribute to the film, demonstrating that she is one of those actresses who can make a little go a long way.
Criterion's warm and cozy transfer is quite good, though the visuals are perhaps somewhat less overtly "Christmas-y" than many holiday films. While there are plenty of warm and inviting colors, there are also plenty of gloomy grays, browns, and blacks keeping the mood from becoming too lively. Detail is solid throughout, though there are a few slightly lacking background shots that made me wish I was watching the Blu-ray version of the film. Blacks could have been a bit deeper. Flesh tones are warm and accurate. The sound comes through nicely as well, though it's an understated track (note the way the music rarely swells to any sort of emotional crescendo, instead maintaining a steady presence in the background). Dialogue remains at the fore throughout, and it comics through with clarity. Sound design is very minimal.
Considering that this is a two-disc special edition, the supplemental package is slightly less thorough than you might expect. There is no audio commentary onhand, so all of the supplements can be found on the second disc. There are only two supplements, though both are fairly substantial. The first is a 66-minute documentary called "L'Aimee," which focuses on the sale of one of Desplachin's family houses in 2007. It's a moderately compelling watch, though only slightly related to the making of this film. For those actually interested in the making of the film, we have the 36-minute "Arnaud's Tale," a documentary featuring interviews with Desplachin, Deneuve, and Amalric. I was somewhat surprised to discover that this feature is presented entirely in English. It's far and away the more engaging of the two supplements, with some genuinely substantial conversation about the movie. Other than these two items, we only have the usual Criterion booklet, this time offering an excellent essay by Phillip Lopate.
The film can be incredibly tricky to keep up with. The key to understanding the film is to be exceptionally attentive during the first half-hour, as we're essentially given a whirlwind primer of the Vuillan family history. There are a lot of players involved and the relationships are exceptionally complex, so it can become challenging at times to remember who feels what about whom. If ever a film could use a supplemental map of characters and their motivations, it's this one. In addition, for all the wonderful moments this film has to offer, there are some bits that just seem sluggish and self-indulgent. Desplachin is clearly a filmmaker with many gifts, but self-censorship isn't necessarily one of them.
Though the film concludes in a partially unresolved and perhaps even emotionally unsatisfying manner, A Christmas Tale is a compelling journey. Rich with subtext and loaded with cinematic and literary references both relevant and playful, the film will best be appreciated by those seeking generally ambitious filmmaking rather than a warm and fuzzy holiday film. Criterion's release is stellar, if slightly less overflowing with supplements than one might hope for. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 151 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated