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

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.
It seems as if the conclusions you draw in your final paragraphs are unfortunately influenced by that which you write of in your third. That is, you seem to be looking for that which the film neither offers or intends to, the heroic character, the family above all others. Rather, these characters, this family, offer the viewers, through the direction of Desplechin, and through the screwball and melodramatic, a picture and philosophy of that is not heroic or idealized but living, breathing and ruminating on the actualities of family, life, death, relationships and our thoughts, projections and perceptions of the same. That may not conform to some grand gesture the family reunion genre has beaten us into expecting but it more importantly inspires the kind of thought the nietzsche and emerson quotes in the film achieve.
The question is, are the “actualities of family” and the lives of the Vuillards worthy of our attentions as audience members? There is pain, suffering, hidden longings and the like in every family – what makes the Vuillards any different, and what distinguishes this film from our own lives? By the end of the film, I had realized that the actualities of the Vuillards’ lives were not worthy of the screen time they had been given.
Well, I guess that question, and the answer, raises a fundamental difference of opinion about this film, and perhaps film in general. It seems to this viewer that the point of the film is not about distinguishing this family from others, of depicting them as somehow of greater interest, as more heroic or harrowed or grand, but through the characters, events, etc. and, importantly (as this is a movie), the means of depicting these events, and, perhaps more so, the ideas which are of and from these characters and events, one is able to not simply come to an understanding of motivations or an attainment of these characters worth but to acheive the more difficult yet more satisfying end of being motivated to a not finalized or preached thought. That it isn’t to say these livers are not “worthy” of screen time, a concept I must say I either do not fully understand or must fundamentally disagree with, but that the simple gestures of redemption or reconciliation that the genre traffics in is not what is being attempted here. The film is far more concerned with the ideas stemming from, enveloping, drifting within that which Abel quotes: “We remain a mystery to ourselves, we fail to understand ourselves, we are bound to mistake ourselves. Of ourselves, we have no knowledge.” Though sometimes dangerous to listen to the words of a director I think it is apt here to quote Desplechin (who is indeed one of the more intriguing directors to see/read interviewed, in his intelligence of his ideas, work and blindspots): “Usually in a Thanksgiving movie, you’re obliged to wait an hour and ten minutes, after which the mother will confess to her son while crying and sobbing, “I never loved you.” I love that kind of movie—it’s fun, it’s popular—but, I think it’s a loss of time. Why wait for such a long time? With this family, the Vuillard family, they confess this in the opening scene. They are terrible, brash and bold, saying the forbidden thing to start each scene. After that, you can see how life actually happens. And is it all that bad? No! If you start a conversation by saying, “I’m not that keen on you. I’ve never loved you. You were born too late and you couldn’t save your brother. I don’t feel anything for you”; after that, they will spend a good moment together because all the worse has been confessed at the beginning."
What family—or person—doesn’t deserve 150 minutes of screen time?

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