Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Jaen-Paul Roussillon
Genre: Drama/Comedy/Festive French Frolics
The Vuillard family is no stranger to tragedy, mental illness and indifference, but when the matriarch of the family Junon (Deneuve) learns she has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant if she stands a chance of surviving, they are all forced to come back together. This requires every member of the family to get tested for their compatibility, including Junon’s estranged middle child Henri (Amalric). Henri himself was only born as their first born required a transplant to be saved from a fatal illness, but Henri was not compatible. When Henri went bankrupt the eldest Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) paid all Henri’s debts in court, but on the agreement that he was to never see her again. Now once again the entire extended family gather in Junon and husband Abel’s (Roussillon) house for Christmas, and the family member’s conflicting personalities, along with the family tensions and long term resentments once again surface. While the revelations as to who has a compatible bone marrow only heighten the tensions and power play.
Ah, families. Perhaps a tradition that is not so common now, but on those rare occasions such as Christmas when the entire family gather together tensions have a tendency to arrive, especially when the members have had a few drinks. Well if you are looking for a farcical light hearted take on that then stick with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as A Christmas Tale is a far darker and more adult take on the dark secrets and secret feelings of hatred that can lie just below the surface of the conventional extended family unit. In the case of A Christmas Tale it truly is the extended family as we have grandchildren, cousins, wives and husbands too.
Some may be put off by the 150 minute running time, but this enables Desplechin to give every character their moment, so that we too almost feel part of the family. There is a lot to take in at the start and so attention is required, but once we know who everyone is the time just flies by and this is truly gripping stuff. Though different in many ways, each character has some struggle or underlying conflict that we can relate to. Of course you could argue that things are sometimes exaggerated for dramatic effect, but there is a grounded reality in each plot development which is partly why this is such a rich and compelling drama that is in my top 10 all time Christmas films.
Not only is it a superbly acted and written drama, A Christmas Tale will also serve as a painful reminder to how dark, funny and indeed darkly funny life can be. This is especially the case when it comes to families, people we would not necessarily choose to be friends with or indeed have anything to do with if we were not related to them.
Sometimes there is never a logical reason given, sometimes we have to figure it out from the most subtle hints and very often these conflicts never get resolved. That is life. With all the underlying tensions it would have been easy Desplechin to go for a clichéd crescendo towards the end, but thankfully he demonstrates superb restrain and control over his film which makes it a far more rewarding experience because of this. As initially frustrating as it might be for the viewer to be sometimes kept in the dark, this provides an overall more fulfilling experience as Desplechin treats the audience with total respect and never spoon feeds us anything.
A Christmas Tale is not only a great story and cinematic experience, but also takes in a rich variety of subjects such as culture, philosophy and science, reflecting the various interests and paths that these individuals have chosen. The dialogue is intelligent and often has double meanings and plenty of subtext, creating this superb atmosphere that is at times unnerving as we at times want to laugh but know there is perhaps something a little more sinister at work below the surface. Though of course this is a story that could have taken place at any time in the year, the festive setting adds extra poignancy and atmosphere to the narrative.
The ensemble cast are all superb, with the two bigger names of Deneuve and Amalric perhaps the inevitable stand outs, but as perhaps the two main characters they give real depth and empathy to two characters that are notoriously difficult to like on first meeting. Especially Amalric, his character has very little wish to be there or indeed be liked by anyone, but thanks to the superb script and Amalric’s extraordinary performance, is an unforgettable and compelling character.
If you are looking for a more intelligent and involving drama this festive season, then A Christmas Tale may well be what you are looking for, as it deals with universally familiar (and often dark) themes we can all relate to. The long and complex nature of the drama may not to appeal to all as it does at times require effort and thought, but if you are willing to put something in then this is a funny, depressing, poignant and incredibly rewarding festive drama.