Is there any pleasure in nitpicking—let alone deriding—an admirable film? I suppose there are better targets than Arnaud Desplechin's hyper-melodrama A Christmas Tale: reprehensible cinema that degrades the art, or the audience, or the world itself. But then again when movies like Desplechin's are raised so utterly high and out of reach of those works of reprehension—unspeakable and unnamable, mostly, because rare is the critic, let alone the viewer, thoroughly well versed in both these kinds of cinema—maybe there should be some caution and suspicion.
Well, color me suspicious. A Christmas Tale tries too hard, and for all its fervent interest in and respect for its cacophonous cast of ur-neurotic relations and lovers, this excess of energy, of style, of disruptions and discontinuity, all these work at an overdrive which begs the question whether or not the film's makers really believe in the film. Yet of course they believe in their work, and again it bares mentioning that this most thunderous and accomplished of films is tremendous in its achievements of thunder and emotion; but what is overwhelmingly clear is that this family, this story, trembles in its weakness, its thinness, and its brittle, acerbic, and often quite warm confrontation with the audience to such a degree that the film must build, brick by grossly stylized brick, a cinema of one-upmanship.
To sustain an incredulous subject, a tornado is deployed to carry the sprawl of characters and their tightly packed days of contest, love, and hate forever upward and onward, faster and faster, propelled at such a rate, shifting tones so quickly, quoting movies and music with such a frenetic pace as to disguise the very lack of foundation underneath. This is not to say A Christmas Tale is a superficial work; if anything, one is unlikely to find so much meat so tightly packed into a two and a half hour film this year apart from Nolan's The Dark Knight. But it must be said that such priggish qualities as plausibility, psychological or behavior realism, melodramatic logic, justification of aesthetic expressions, and other fundamental and admittedly tiresomely mentioned aspects of the underlying skeleton of character-based dramatic cinema seem to be entirely missing from the empty center of Arnaud Desplechin’s film.
In the calm of his previous movie, the sublime documentary L’Aimée the filmmaker was able to create a quiet, interlocking work using architecture and memory, history and cinema—strong bonds built to withhold the weight of the director's search for a personal evocation of his paternal grandmother who died nearly immediately after his father was born. The irony with the fictional follow-up is that its extreme kinetics is simply the aesthetic flip side to the same thematic coin—namely, the myriad of ways people use their past, real and imagined, lived and missed, and the people, things, and places around them to construct identity out of...nothing. But L’Aimée is a work of emptiness, solitude, and reserve where we can recognize what is missing—Desplechin’s father's impression, his memory, and his feelings for his mother—and A Christmas Tale, in contrast, trades in that quiet consideration for a blitzkrieg on the eyes and ears whose neo-baroque assault seems to cover this essential emptiness within.
The question, ultimately, is one of focalization: does A Christmas Tale have an identity so vaporous it must work overtime to cover-up and cover-over its vacuous center, or does it tell a story of a family who is so crippled by their own lack of identity that they must build up a style of empty frenzy and neurosis to cover up their problems? Or perhaps the solution is a combination of the two: that, ultimately, A Christmas Tale is admirable above and beyond all this because it is that rare film that so wholeheartedly believes in its world as to take on the very qualities, for better or for worse, of that fictional world itself.