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Review: "A Christmas Tale" (Desplechin, France)

Zachary Wigon
A Christmas TaleArnaud Desplechin's latest, A Christmas Tale, has a lot of things going for it. Its title is not one of them. While the film's feel-good holiday-time title is an ironic, purposeful misnomer, it failed to take me far beyond the initial laugh. Asking myself what I would've titled it if I were Desplechin (if only!), I settled upon theft – Species of Spaces, the title of a Georges Perec essay collection. A Christmas Tale deftly takes a house, a family home with decades of memories, and turns it into "film-brain," a space that provides the thematic foundation for everything Desplechin wants to accomplish. Because A Christmas Tale is a fetishization of one family's problems, conflicts and general emotional pain that has collected over the decades, it makes perfect sense that the house - The Home, in caps, is better - serves as a kind of "ground zero" for Desplechin's thematic inquiries.
A step back. A Christmas Tale is the tale of, shockingly, a family gathering together at Christmas. Early on in the film, we learn that Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), the Vuillard family matriarch, has contracted leukemia. She needs a bone marrow transplant, which can only be supplied by an extremely close match. As all of Junon's children and grandchildren begin taking the blood test to see if they're compatible, Junon invites all to her home for Christmas. It will be the first time the whole family has been together in the same place for years, as Junon's son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was effectively banished from the family years ago by her daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). To give you an idea of the tenor of the film’s narrative, note that Henri, the family pariah, was conceived in order to find a transplant for Junon’s oldest son, Joseph, who got leukemia when he was six. Henri was not a match, and Joseph died. But this time around, Henri is the match – for Junon, who incidentally hates Henri (or at least claims to).
As the family gathers in the home they all grew up in, there are fights, tears, laughs, and all the other requisite emotions. Yet the interesting thing about A Christmas Tale is that, while it sounds like a completely trite entry in the unearthing-of-family-pain-Christmas-movie genre, it fully manages to avoid becoming that film, and in fact, subverts it. This is possible because, as Desplechin himself has pointed out, he likes to have his characters get things out in the open right off the bat - we see the Junon telling Henri quite matter-of-factly early on in the film that she never loved him, with a wry smile. It's okay, he says. I only loved you once - it was 1971. The big moments that would typically be played for tears in the end of a film are here played for laughs in the beginning.
A Christmas Tale has bountiful charm in the first leg of the film, mainly because it is able to take a lovely, dry wit to its characters' bitterness; the film is filled with emotional blows, any one of which, yes, could serve as the climactic revelation of the (nonexistent) American remake of this film. Of course, the characters in A Christmas Tale aren't really as bitter or as hateful as the things they say to each other would indicate; it's simply that they're French. Emotionally distanced, with sharp, acerbic manners of viewing the world, the Vuillard family members have simply been let down by life too often to hold anyone in it with particularly high regard. Indeed, some of the most poignant moments of the film come when the most horrific events are treated with lightness, and the film veers into the realm of the grotesque. Consider the opening scene, where the patriarch, Abel, speaks at Joseph's funeral. Abel tells the mourners that he "felt no grief" at his son's death. He then goes on to explain, with a look devoid of sadness, that Joseph is now his “founder,” and Abel, “his son.” As this is the film's opening scene, it lacks the context necessary for it to be comedic, but it provides the framework within which other scenes of horror can have a comedic effect. Take a scene midway through the film where Henri insults Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), Elizabeth's husband, at the kitchen table as almost the entire family eats together. Barely before the insult is out of his mouth, Claude takes a swing at Henri, and a fistfight ensues. I don't know what the atmosphere would be like if such an event occurred at your family Christmas, but if something like this happened at mine, I can only cringe at imagining the panic, the screaming, the tears, the shock. Here, the reaction of the onlookers varies from semi-concerned (Elizabeth) to downright amused (Faunia, Henri's girlfriend, played by Emmanuelle Devos). Yes, the greatest moment in A Christmas Tale comes when, as Claude punches Henri in the face and begins to beat him up, Henri's girlfriend simply looks on the proceedings, and laughs. Who was it that commented that life was either comically tragic, or tragically comic? The strongest moments in the film reaffirm this maxim.
What A Christmas Tale does, it does extremely well. Creating a grand family narrative filled with suffering and legend. Skewering the emotional-pain-family-reunion-Christmas-movie genre that we have to suffer through all too often. The problem is that it does these things too well and too much - particularly the creation of the grand Vuillard family narrative. About two-thirds of the way into this two-and-a-half-hour film, I began asking myself, so what? The Vuillards are a dysfunctional family, perhaps a bit more dysfunctional than most. Their lives have been filled with all kinds of disappointments and tragedies that they blame on one another. Sure, there is an extremely rich backstory, elements of the Shakespearean, but honestly, why is the Vuillard family important? Why does the audience need to invest themselves in the Vuillard family saga?
It began to feel a bit like it feels when I sit around with my own relatives, immediate and extended, and we discuss everyone's problems, the wrongs each has done the others, the old stories everyone tells a million times; it began to feel fetishized and masturbatory. A Christmas Tale revels in the dense, layered backstory it has created for its central family, worshipping the legends of the Vuillard history as giant moments imbued with Significance and Meaning. However, as the film goes on, we realize that there is nothing remarkable about these stories; what significance is it to me if, say, Simon (Laurent Capelluto) has always loved Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), or Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) has always been the peace-broker? Is this not what composes soap opera as well? It's true that the way the film approaches the story is far more important than the story itself, but the film's formal approach can only sustain itself for so long before its magic wears off. This is true for any film. And as Desplechin should know, when the magic wears off is when the movie should end.

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