Nov 18, 2008

On A Christmas Tale

By Lena Dunham

There are certain genre tropes that unbearably conjure the term "Christmas movie": massive tables laid out with food, children yearning for a gift beyond what Santa can provide, sleighs stuck in hilarious places, Tim Allen trapped in a chimney looking sheepish. Even Bad Santa, the delicious nugget of coal that Billy Bob Thornton and Terry Zwigoff dropped in our stockings in 2003, has an ending that hints at a Noel miracle. But A Christmas Tale, the latest opus from French auteur Arnaud Desplechin, is truly radical in its refusal to bow to the weight of its title. This is a Christmas movie in name alone.

A Christmas Tale is the story of the Vuillard clan, a middle-class French family rife with concealed passions and Machiavellian power plays, their collective story Dickensian in its complexity and heighted melodrama. The film opens with the discovery that the Vuillard’s resilient matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve, still cheeky and seductive as ever) is suffering from a fast spreading cancer. Her only hope of survival is a bone marrow transplant but her marrow type is rare. Will any of her children be a match?

Elizabeth is the only sibling old enough to have witnessed her six-year old brother Joseph’s death from the same disease decades earlier. Junon’s youngest child, Ivan, is sweet-natured, cheerful, having been born after the tragedy of his brother’s death. However he didn’t escape unscathed: he suffered from a lengthy bout of the mental illness that now plagues Elizabeth’s teenage son, Paul. The middle child, Henri (Mathieu Amalric, always so exceptional in love-to-hate-him playboy roles) was conceived in hopes that he would be a marrow match for his dying brother. That didn’t pan out, filling Junon with an unreasonable resentment she has no problem coping to. Ironically, Henri is now the only sibling who proves a match for the dying woman. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has banned Henri from family gatherings for his involvement in some financial misdealings. Although Henri is challenging, unsteady and provocative, he finally has an offer no one can refuse: he may just keep their mother alive. These are the circumstances surrounding the Vuillards as they come together (along with various grandchildren, spouses, and cousins) for their first collective Christmas in five years.

If it sounds intense, well, it is. The film careens wildly between comedy and tragedy, taking pit stops along the way at hysterical melodrama. Desplechin is almost pathologically inventive, utilizing puppetry, monologue, and experimental camerawork to create a patchwork of techniques and genres that should feel overwrought but doesn’t. At two and a half hours, A Christmas Tale is something of an epic and has room enough for all of Desplechin’s experimentation. It also has room enough to create an achingly real ensemble of characters. In a letter to his sister, Henri tells her never to “act beyond your capacity to repair.” As they collide and combust, trying to repair a damage older than they are, the Vuillard’s intentions are deliciously opaque. This nameless resentment will ring true to anyone whose family has ever caused them grief for reasons that feel predestined and beyond rational explanation.

Desplechin’s film feels, in many ways, without predecessors but it does invite a comparisons to other films about fractured families of prodigious, prickly individuals, such as Wes Anderson'sThe Royal Tenenbaums, or lesser films like The Family Stone or Smart People. Like Margo Tenenbaum, Elizabeth is a blonde playwright with a seething fragility and a passion for her brother that borders on inappropriate (only in Desplechin’s universe, it is murderous rage rather than romantic love.) Like Anderson, Desplechin favors staged tableau, crafty art direction (i.e. the puppet sequence) but the French director never allows these elements to impair his ability to develop his characters. The Tenenbaums were steeped in artifice but the viewer is dropped directly into the roiling center of the Vuillard’s emotional truth. Christmas may be the occasion that facilitates the Vuillard’s frenzied reunion, but the ancient wounds inflicted by the moving parts of a nuclear family—well, that is a year round reality.