A CHRISTMAS TALE (Un conte de Noël)
(director/writer: Arnaud Desplechin; screenwriter: Emmanuel Bourdieu; cinematographer: Éric Gautier; editor: Laurence Briaud; music: Grégoire Hetzel; cast: Catherine Deneuve (Junon Vuillard), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel Vuillard), Anne Consigny (Élizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri Vuillard), Melvil Poupaud (Ivan Vuillard), Hippolyte Girardot (Claude), Emmanuelle Devos (Faunia), Chiara Mastroianni (Sylvia), Émile Berling (Paul), Laurent Capelluto (Simon), Thomas Obled (Basile, Ivan and Sylvia’s son), Clément Obled (Baptiste, Ivan and Sylvia’s son); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pascal Caucheteux; IFC; 2008-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Seems hardly like cheerful holiday fare but nevertheless goes down as richly as plum pudding.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A dysfunctional family Christmas tale playfully written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen”/”My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument”/”Esther Kahn”) and co-written by Emmanuel Bourdieu, that seems hardly like cheerful holiday fare but nevertheless goes down as richly as plum pudding and has the potential to become a new kind of Christmas classic–which can be offered as “theater of the absurd.” It’s a talky, heady comedy/drama that’s spiced up by the really fine irreverent performances by the ensemble cast, lending it a distinct tartness. It ultimately shows its true colors as something touching with an edge, as it tells of the Vuillard’s shared history of physical and mental illness–a long-suffering family haunted over death. The hardest thing to figure out about this odd family, is who’s who and who’s doing what to whom.
The toad-like charmer and most tolerant of Old Testament figures, the dye factory owner Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and his deliciously regal much younger wife Junon (Catherine Denueve), find despair when their firstborn child Joseph, at three, is diagnosed as terminally ill with a rare liver cancer and can’t find a parent who is compatible to donate a bone marrow to save his life. Their daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), born healthy, also is incompatible and because of this will feel inadequate all her life despite her relative success as an adult. In one last desperate act to save Joseph’s life, they conceive Henri (Mathieu Amalric). But he’s also incompatible, so Joseph dies at age seven and an embittered mom rejects Henri for not being able to save her favorite child. Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is born after Joseph is buried, and the youngest Vuillard is favored even though he’s the least talented and suffers from being somewhat mentally-challenged.
The family has its differences and grows apart over the years as the children are not able to get along, but after five years of estrangement the Vuillard clan reunites for the Christmas season to their stately parental home in Roubaix (a small industrial city on the Belgian border). Elizabeth has become a successful playwright, with five plays to her credit, who’s married to a serious mathematician named Claude(Hippolyte Girardot) and is mother to a mentally troubled teenager named Paul (Emile Berling) who is a loner and can’t function in school. The dissolute Henri has turned off his sibs by acting like an irresponsible asshole, and in particular turned off his insecure guilt-ridden sister when he bought a rundown theater and mismanaged so he assumed a large debt. In a dramatic courtroom scene, Elizabeth paid the debt so her parents wouldn’t lose their house but, as a result, banished Henri from her presence. Henri, also suffering from the death of his wife after only a month of marriage, becomes an alcoholic drifter and acts unstable. Surprisingly showing his face, after not seeing the family for five years, the now Parisian brings a date named Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), an attractive Jewish lass with an enviable rump the family likens to Angela Bassett. Also attending is Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who married the sexy Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real daughter) and is father to two small inquisitive boys, Basile and Baptiste. Sylvia married him on the rebound when her love for Ivan’s artist cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), also attending the dinner celebration, was foolishly rejected by him as a noble gesture so that the insecure Ivan, who wanted Sylvia in the worse way, doesn’t get hurt. She has also slept with Henri, but he was only after sex and not love. Of course Sylvia is accepted by the always tolerant Abel, but distrusted and disliked by the more disparaging Junon.
The drama turns more emotional when it’s discovered Junon is dying because she has the same rare cancer as Joseph, and the only family members who are compatible to donate a bone marrow to extend her life for a few years are Paul and Henri. There is an unlocking of family secrets and many confrontational scenes among the family members and doctors, as well as some volatile scenes with the skittish Henri. The forthright Faunia, not comfortable with celebrating Christmas and unable to get her man reunited on good terms with his family, returns to Paris alone on Christmas Eve. The Vuillards celebrate with fireworks, champagne, classical music (ironically listening to Mendelssohn) and raptly watch together Charlton Heston’s Moses part the Red Sea on TV. When Henri revives himself from a drunken stupor, he joins Junon and Paul at a midnight mass.
It culminates as a poignant celebration of family and its inbred problems that can divide it as well as bring it together. A film that is head and shoulders above your typical dumbed-down Hollywood family fare. There’s a beguiling undercurrent of joy in this strange family reunion that the filmmaker deftly puts together with a mix of black comedy and literary allusions (from Kafka to Shakespeare), keeping his antagonistic characters bonded to each other despite matriarchal alienation, inherited guilt and other dividing circumstances. It opens on a tender note with Elizabeth’s childhood puppet show and ends on a tender note during the post-holiday period with a revitalized Elizabeth willing to make another go of things by re-evaluating her life in terms of a theatrical review, such as what a blood rejection actually means (doing so for all the family, since she’s the most articulate one). What’s also inferred by the blood rejection, is how the Jews and Christians became so alienated after having the same roots.
REVIEWED ON 12/10/2008 GRADE: A- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/