As far as Judge Dan Mancini is concerned, nothing says Christmas like a movie about sardonic French people.
What a family of weirdos. The Vuillards pretend they're normal, but they're not.
Director Arnaud Desplechin is sort of a French version of Robert Altman and Wes Anderson. He favors sprawling but intimate epics peopled with a huge cast of memorably quirky characters. His sixth narrative feature, 2008's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel), gets the full-on Criterion Collection high definition treatment in this impressive Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
The Vuillards are a wealthy, artistic, and eccentric family ensconced in a mansion in the French commune of Roubaix. For the past five years they have been upended by sibling infighting, financially irresponsible middle brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace) banished from the family by eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon, The Girl from Paris) initiates a rocky yuletide family reunion after learning that his wife Junon (Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour) has a degenerative disease and only a bone marrow transplant from a matching relative can offer a sliver of hope for her survival. Returning to the Vuillard manse for the holiday are Elizabeth and her mentally ill teenage son Paul (Emile Berling, Behind the Walls), Henri and his girlfriend of the moment Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, Kings and Queens), youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, A Summer's Tale) and his wife Sylvia (Deneuve's daughter, Chiara Mastroianni), and Junon's starving-artist nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto, The High Life). Comedy, drama, a bit of infidelity, and reconciliation (or not) ensue. Haunting the proceedings is the memory of the Vuillards' youngest child Joseph, who died at the tender age of six.
For children, Christmas is a magical time of decorated trees, wrapped gifts, lush feasts, candies and cookies, and Santa Claus. The adult experience of the holiday is altogether different, a melancholy mix of memories of one's own childhood innocence and reflections on the swift passage of time and the empty seats at the banquet table left by family and friends who have passed on. Yes, for grown-ups, Christmas—with its wintertime setting, coming together of family (along with all the joy and exasperation that entails), and religious significance—is a time when it's difficult to escape thoughts of human mortality. Even that most famous of Christmas tales (besides the one that took place in Bethlehem a couple thousand years ago), Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, is mostly about death (though we 21st century Americans have attempted to turn it into a moral lesson about the power of money and consumerism to change lives for the better). From Jacob Marley's ghost, to Scrooge's poor sister, to jolly Old Fezziwig and his plump wife, to the possible future fates of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, every paragraph of Dickens' story is steeped in death. A Christmas Tale proceeds along a similarly seriocomic line as Dickens' work, offering a colorful cast of characters made to face the cold, hard truth of life's transitory nature. Despite touches of the absurd and self-conscious cinematic flourishes, it reproduces with startling clarity that tension between joy and sorrow that the holiday season ignites in adults. It is a fine holiday movie for those seeking a bit more depth than that offered up by Grinches and elves.
I realize that my description of the movie's plot makes it sound both dour and clichéd. A Christmas Tale is anything but. Desplechin toys with the broadest of Freudian stereotypes, but does so with no pretension and tongue firmly planted in cheek—the behavior of the three Vuillard children is so determined by their respective roles in the family that title cards announce them as Elizabeth the Eldest, Henri the Middle One, and Ivan the Youngest. The actors perform with an odd emotional detachment that Desplechin wisely plays for laughs. In one particularly strange yet mesmerizing scene, Junon and Henri share a cigarette and reminisce about how they never liked each other. Their conversation is blunt but playful. There's no sense that either is joking about their dislike of the other. Nor is there any hint that either is resentful or hurt. Mutual animosity is just the nature of their relationship. It's a surprisingly charming scene, well acted by Deneuve and Amalric. Similarly, Junon's announcement to her husband that she has a potentially terminal cancer is matter of fact. Only later in the film does Desplechin give us brief glimpses of the couple's inner emotional states—once when Junon lies quietly in bed, unable to sleep, and a second time when Abel props himself up in bed on one elbow and gazes at his sleeping wife's face. These brief moments of honest, understated emotion enable us to care about the characters, to experience them as real human beings. Throughout the rest of the film, the Vuillards play act at being a family, bluntly honest about the role each plays in the family but always hiding their emotions. Desplechin emphasizes this aspect of familial performance by punctuating his film with self-conscious flourishes like lens irises, actors speaking directly to the camera, a puppet show, and even a slapdash Christmas pageant improvised by Ivan and Sylvia's young children.
Desplechin never overplays his filmmaker's hand. His cinematic touches remind us that we're watching a movie, but his understated (though verbose) screenplay forces us to puzzle over what makes the characters tick even as they puzzle over each other. The director also provides his actors plenty of room to perform. Deneuve and Amalric are the stand-outs among the universally excellent cast (most of whom are members of Desplechin's loose stock company). On paper, A Christmas Tale may sound like flaccid cliché, but its vibrant characters and understated drama give a fresh veneer to a holiday reunion plot we've seen many times before.
The Criterion Collection serves up A Christmas Tale in an MPEG-4/AVC transfer that was supervised and approved by Desplechin. The 2.35:1 image delivers impressive detail and spot-on reproduction of the movie's naturalistic color palette. As with most Criterion releases, film grain is present, accounted for, and untouched by digital noise reduction. Being a modern movie, A Christmas Tale sports a tight and quite attractive grain structure that adds character and beauty to the image.
There is a single audio presentation: The original French track delivered in DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. The audio is dialogue heavy, but the presentation is crisp and clean, offering plenty of depth and fine detail.
In addition to the feature, the disc contains L'aimee, Desplechin's documentary uses the event of the sale of his parents' home in Roubaix as a backdrop to explore the director's family life. Like A Christmas Tale, it is full of comedy, drama, and charm. Arnaud Tale is a 35-minute making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Desplechin, Deneuve, and Amalric. There are also French and American trailers for A Christmas Tale. All of these video features, including the trailers, are presented in high definition.
A beefy insert booklet contains film credits, details about the digital transfer, and a fine essay about A Christmas Tale by film critic Phillip Lopate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Desplechin writes his screenplays by slapping together a variety of seemingly unrelated ideas floating around in his head. This has the benefit of making his movies feel structurally organic, but can also produce passages that are rambling and lacking in focus. Charming as it is, at 151 minutes A Christmas Tale feels a half hour too long. The movie is full of riveting drama, genuine pathos, and a dry wit, but also labors under the weight of scenes padded for the sake of texture alone.
A Christmas Tale is a surprisingly funny and affecting seriocomic family epic worthy of a place in any grown-up's slate of annual holiday viewing.
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Scales of Justice
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