Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Jean-Paul Roussillon
The title of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale evokes a sentimental, fairytale-like feeling. It suggests a story in which all problems are brought to heel by the spirit of the holiday, sweeping away conflict and renewing old bonds. Desplechin’s film does not play out this way, but is instead a deep and complex family drama (occasionally a comedy) that offers little in the way of resolution. This is the kind of film where nothing “happens” because it is much more interested in examining its characters and the subtleties of their relationships with each other. A Christmas Tale is a story of a family haunted by loss, wounded by discord, but ultimately bound together by blood and history… whether they want to be or not.
A Christmas Tale is about the Vuillard family: patriarch and matriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve), daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), sons Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), and the specter of their eldest child Joseph, who died of leukemia at the age of two. The death of Joseph has affected and continues to affect the members of the family in profound ways that they may or may not quite grasp. Throughout the film Joseph is described as alternately having disappeared from the family memory as if he did not live long enough to have ever really existed, and as having defined the family. Henri, who was conceived in the vain hope that he might be a compatible bone marrow donor for Joseph, was created to give but has spent his life taking from everyone, and his selfishness has resulted in him being banished from Elizabeth’s life and from the family whenever Elizabeth is with them. She believes that Henri is a poison to the family and perhaps blames him for not being able to save Joseph, whose death has left a deep void in her life, turning her into the eldest child as far as Henri and Ivan are concerned, though she herself knows that the role she’s playing is a false one. But at least she and Henri have “roles” within the family, which is more than Ivan has had and which caused him to drift shapelessly through life until meeting his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and having a family of his own.
The story takes place five years after the rift between Elizabeth and Henri, which has seen the latter excluded from all family gatherings, though he continues to see Abel, Ivan, and his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) on occasion. He is reluctantly (on virtually all sides) brought back into the fold when Junon is diagnosed with cancer and he proves to be the only one of the children who is a match for a bone marrow transplant. Elizabeth’s teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling), is also a match, however, due to his age and the mental problems which have recently resulted in him being hospitalized, Junon prefers to have Henri act as the donor (as she puts it, Henri came from her womb, so she’s simply taking back what is hers).
Though the catalyst of the story is Junon’s diagnosis, A Christmas Tale is not a maudlin film or even a very sentimental one. Junon is strangely resigned to her fate (left untreated the cancer will kill her eventually, but having the transplant might kill her right away) and so the story does not focus on her illness, but rather on the complex web of relationships between the members of the family who have been forced together by the fact of her illness. As expected in a film of this type, many long buried things begin to come up to the surface the more time the family spends together, from the memory of Henri’s late wife, who died so soon after their marriage that she never had a chance to become part of the family but whose photo is on the mantle, which in a sense has made her more a part of the family than Henri has been for five years; to Sylvia’s complicated history with Ivan, Simon, and Henri, who at one time all wanted to be with her and whom she learns decided amongst themselves which of them would get to be with her, making her feel like she’s been living a life that was not of her own choosing; and of course to the mysterious rift between Elizabeth and Henri, which the film is constantly circling back to, and Joseph’s death which seems to hang over everything. Few things will be resolved in the end, but that’s not the point. Desplechin is so deeply invested in the psychological state of this family that the notion of resolution becomes irrelevant. Families don’t resolve themselves, after all. Dynamics and circumstances change, but life goes on. A Christmas Tale is a snapshot of a certain family at a certain time, with hints about how they got there and hints about where they will go from there, but it’s not a story about beginnings and endings.
A Christmas Tale is a film that isn’t easily categorized, as Desplechin plays around a lot with style and tone, demonstrating how differently we might view the characters if he decided to turn the plot this way or that. That structural volatility works here both because of the director’s skill and because, like most families, the Vuillards are not defined by either comedy or drama, but move through grades of both. The lack of narrative consistency does not rob us as an audience, but rather enhances our understanding of these characters because Desplechin opens things up so that he can explore the dynamics of this family in all their messiness and intricacy. A Christmas Tale is a film which leaves you pondering a lot of questions (my main question, both when I first saw the film years ago and after a recent re-watch, is whether the cause of the rift is Henri secretly being Paul’s father - seriously, it would explain so many things) and which acts as a terrific showcase for some marvelous acting (the cast is, across the board, wonderful). It’s a film that resonates and leaves a lasting impression – even if that impression is, “Thank God my family isn’t like that!”