Christmas Tale (2008): Desplechin’s Charming Fable

(Une Conte De Noel: Roubaix!)

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Blurring the lines between a TV mini-series and a tight filmic narrative, and heavily relying on naturalistic dialogue and superlative acting, Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” is a bravura piece of filmmaking. As a story of a three-generational dysfunctional family, with a cast of at least 15 characters, each fully developed, the movie is always engaging and often emotionally touching, despite excessive running time of 150 minutes.

Steeped in humanism, “Christmas Tale” displays the kind of inventive visual storytelling seldom seen in American cinema (except for serial TV, such as “Six Feet Under” or “Brothers and Sisters”). Rich in text and subtext, “Christmas Tale” is Desplechin’s most ambitious and most accomplished film to date, a combined result of the fantastic cast, and Eric Gautier’s wide-screen imagery, which captures the family’s fables and foibles, small and big ones, trivial and more substantial.

Though superior to Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Christmas Tale” similarly dwells on the tangled web of relationships between husbands and wives, male and female siblings, parents, children and grandchildren. It’s hard to think of a type of kinship that’s not represented in this multi-layered saga. Like Anderson, Desplechin also employs various structural devices–book chapters, montages, title cards, voice-over narration, characters addressing the camera–that blend seamlessly into a coherent tale, due to the sharp editing and fast pacing.

Like Desplechin’s previous efforts, most notably “How I Got Into an Argument” or “In the Company of Men,” “Christmas Tale” will be perceived by non-Gallic viewers (particularly American) as too verbose–the movie’s action is all dialogue. It’s also likely to divide critics along national lines, with some French critics hailing it as a masterpiece. American reaction remains to be seen, when IFC, in its first major Cannes acquisition, releases it in late fall.

For me, “Christmas Tale” is the kind of movie that seduces you gradually into its spell by encouraging you to get involvement in the lives of its eccentric characters, all defined by up-and-down-and up trajectories and offbeat quirks.

The philosophy of life that informs the film could be described as cool, nonchalant Gallic (c’est la vie), considering that the main protagonist, Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve in a splendid form) is early on diagnosed with a terminal liver cancer, but seems to take it in stride, to say the least. She’s even capable of making jokes about her imminent death, noting at one point, “I’d rather die of a nice cancer than of painful chemotherapy.”

According to her doctor, even if a family member were found compatible as a donor, the bone-marrow transfer would prolong her life by at most two years. (Throughout the tale, Desplechin inserts readings, discussions, and illustrations of a medical treatise on transplants, “La greffe,” by psychoanalyst Jacques Ascher and hematologist Jean-Pierre Jouet, which remarkably don’t feel intrusive).

Desplechin and his co-scribe Emmanuel Bourdieu, son of the noted philosopher and a director on his own right, succeed in transmuting the stories a more or less coherent serio-comedy with strong melodramatic touches by developing subplots for each of the dozen Vuillard family members. They include, among others, Junon’s grandchildren, two boys who insist on being called by their proper names when their long-absent relatives make mistakes.

Though particularly grounded in Roubaix, North of France (it’s refreshing to see such a film not set in Paris), the film deals with rather universal issues: siblings rivalry, parental favoritism of one particular child, guilt that may pass from one generation to the next, repressed emotions and unfulfilled yearnings as a result of fate, misunderstanding, and planning too. The movie is steeped with a sense of loss, sorrow and melancholy, but admirably devoid of pathos and pity. Hence, the deaths of several family members are often conveyed in a detached, even humorous through title cards, captions, and periodic visits to the cemetery.

It would take me at least two pages to describe the complex blood and social relationships among the characters, so it is with apology that I provide a brief description of the synopsis. The beautiful Junon is married to a loving, much older hubby, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who runs a family business of dye factory. The couple had two children, Elizabeth and Joseph. When Joseph developed lymphoma, and none of the family proved compatible for a bone-marrow transplant, they decided to produce a third child, Henri. When he, too, proved incompatible, Joseph died at the age of six. Burying their loss, Junon and Abel then had another child, Ivan, who became his mother’s favorite, though he’s not a “Mama Boy.”

When the story begins, Junon herself is suffering from the same rare genetic condition that she had passed on to Joseph; Abel later suggests that it was her “fault.” Unreasonably cheerful, Junon introduces herself as “I am the one with the cancer,” when Henri brings his new fiancee, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), who’s as offbeat as he is.

Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter from Marcello Mastroianni), and Junon’s nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) form another triangle, which is based on a big secret from their adolescent years.

It tunrs out that only a few can help Junon: Paul (Emile Berling), the depressed son of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) who had a nervous breakdown, husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), and Juno’s son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the black sheep of the family, who in the first scene is banished from the clan into exile at Elizabeth’s demand, after she had settled his debts in a nasty court case.

The whole saga builds towards a big family gathering in Roubaix (a place near Lille) over Christmas. As usual in such occasions, old and new arguments, tensions, and sexual digressions come to the surface through some frank speeches and outrageous actions.

The beauty of Desplechin’s film rests on his facile storytelling, in the smooth transitions from one scene to the next, in the effortlessness he shifts lead persona into the periphery, only to bring them back into center-stage moments later.

Desplechin is an excellent actors’ director. Indeed, there is not a single flawed performance in a film, which is utterly dependent on light yet resonant acting, exemplified here by a regal turn from Catherine Deneuve as the reigning matriarch. (Deneuve remains one of the most underestimated actresses in French cinema, probably because her acting is the least mannered).

The film’s rich and varied musical score illuminates beautifully the story’s shifting moods, mixing segments from the melodic Mendelssohn’s opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with baroque, classic jazz, and even American pop songs.

Among other things, “Christmas Tale” shows the growing influence of Hollywood on Gallic pop culture. At one point, the whole family is watching on their TV screen “The Ten Commandments” most famous scene, the partying of the Red Sea by Charlton Heston’s Moses. It’s just a coincidence that Heston had died earlier this year, but the scene serves as a tribute to the eternal magic of movies, of which Desplechin is very much aware.

Cast

Junon – Catherine Deneuve Abel – Jean-Paul Roussillon Elizabeth – Anne Consigny Henri – Mathieu Amalric Ivan – Melvil Poupaud Claude – Hippolyte Girardot Faunia – Emmanuelle Devos Sylvia – Chiara Mastroianni Simon – Laurent Capelluto Paul – Emile Berling Basile – Thomas Obled Baptiste – Clement Obled Rosaimee – Francoise Bertin Spetafora – Samir Guesmi Dr. Zraidi – Azize Kabouche Credits

IFC release in the U.S. A Bac Films release of a Why Not Prods. presentation of a Why Not, France 2 Cinema, Wild Bunch, Bac Films production, in association with Canal Plus, CineCinema, CNC. International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris. Executive producer, Martine Cassinelli. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Screenplay: Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu, inspired by the book “La greffe” by Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet. Camera: Eric Gautier. Editor: Laurence Briaud. Music: Gregoire Hetzel. Art director: Dan Bevan. Costumes: Nathalie Raoul. Sound: Nicolas Cantin, Sylvain Malbrant, Jean-Pierre Laforce. Assistant director, Gabriele Roux.

Running time: 150 Minutes.