Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

One of the things I value most about the films of Arnaud Desplechin is that he understands the messiness that arises when people aren’t exactly on the same page. In Desplechin’s work, there’s a tension that comes out of people’s perspectives not lining up quite right, and it’s rare to find two lives that fit together completely in a way that is largely free of this tension. In this respect, it seems almost inevitable that Desplechin would eventually make a movie about a family gathering for Christmas, since few dramatic situations are so fraught with this tension. Even the best families have their squabbles and resentments, yet when they gather together for the holidays, in the interest of decorum and “holiday cheer” they fall back on politeness and long-standing traditions to keep the long-simmering emotions at bay.

What’s more, there’s a tendency among most families to assign unspoken labels to each member at a relatively early stage, then to hold tightly to those labels through the years, even past the point where they no longer apply. Little wonder that many adults see the old-fashioned family Christmas less as a pleasure than an obligation, something to be gotten over with so they can get to celebrating everything their own chosen way.

Even under ideal circumstances, Christmas with the Vuillards, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale, would be uneasy. But with matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) gravely ill, and middle child Henri (Matthieu Amalric) back at the party for the first time since being banished six years prior, it gets near-impossible to keep those old unpleasant feelings under wraps. Junon requires a bone marrow transplant, but given her rare blood type, only two family members are compatible- Henri and Paul, the teenage son of Henri’s older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has long despised her little brother for reasons that are never fully explained.

In a more conventional film, Henri and Elizabeth would see this opportunity as a chance to reconcile, with the once-irresponsible brother stepping in to help their mother and save his young nephew the risk. But in A Christmas Tale, it doesn’t work out that way. Elizabeth- who spearheaded Henri’s banishment in the first place- has always been the good and responsible eldest child, and she resents that it’s her ne’er-do-well of a brother who will have the chance to help their mother. In addition, she sees the possibility of Paul helping her mom not merely as a chance to bring her closer to her son, but also to give him a renewed sense of purpose. Both of which are fairly good reasons from Elizabeth’s perspective, but (not that Elizabeth cares) this doesn’t leave much of a place for Henri. Does her antipathy for him spring solely from the incident in question, or is it indicative of something deeper- perhaps (this being a Desplechin film) an inability to deal with the messiness that Henri brings?

In this respect, Desplechin could be called a spiritual cousin of Jean Renoir, especially the Renoir who once penned the line- “the great tragedy of life is this: everyone has his reasons.” All too often in A Christmas Tale, the characters neglect or even hurt the feelings of those closest to them to satisfy their own interests, but in their eyes they’re just doing what they feel must be done. It can be as simple as Junon balking at the skin inflammations that could potentially result from the transplant, or as emotionally fraught as Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), wife of the youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), sleeping with her ex-lover as a means of bringing some closure to their aborted, long-ago relationship. And then there’s Henri, who despite any efforts he might make will always be “the bad kid” to his family. Is there any wonder that we rarely see him happy until he ducks out with his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) to drop her off at the train station?

But I’ve made A Christmas Tale sound sort of dismal, when in fact it’s anything but. In spite of all the despair flying around, the Vuillard house is filled with life and even familial warmth, particularly from the kindly paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Pierre Rousillon- I love that in a Desplechin film a jolly, potato-faced guy like him can wind up with Catherine Deneuve), and no small amount of humor. And from the very beginning of the film, when the family history is recounted using shadow puppets- thus lending it a broad, archetypal quality- Desplechin’s stylistic decisions are bold, yet perfectly used. After my first viewing, A Christmas Tale doesn’t quite measure up to his masterful Kings and Queen, but it’s so full of life, with all its messiness and unpredictability, that I’m sure my esteem for it will only grow over time.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

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