19 December 2008
At the movies: A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel).
This year, Christmas finds the Vuillard family in a state of flux; matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve, as radiant and lovely as ever) has been diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of bone cancer, and without a marrow transplant, her days are numbered. It seems, though, that the only suitable donor is her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric, fresh from Quantum of Solace), who was banished from the family six years prior by his elder sister.
So this Christmas at the Vuillard house, with its children, grandchildren, lovers, and friends all brought together by disease and circumstance, scores will be settled, loves rekindled, hearts broken, and everyone will need a drink before midnight Mass.
French director Arnaud Desplechin is known for complex and moving dramas that aren't afraid of getting a little weird around the edges. His and cowriter Emmanuel Boudrieu's characters are like no others, and he creates such a vivid group of characters that you can't help but find a bit of your own family and experiences within the multifaceted individuals of the Vuillard family and their associates. Desplechin isn't that well-known, but he's breaking through to the global big leagues with this effort.
Though its primary concerns are not forgiveness, catharsis, and healing, you can find a lot in A Christmas Tale to compare with Rachel Getting Married; a willingness to get down and dirty with family structure and ties, a warts-and-all approach to getting to know people, and a sense of the otherworldy force that holds people together even when they don't particularly like one another.
Most Christmas movies are empty and built on hollow iconography- this one is a gift that keeps unwrapping itself, never exactly what you thought, but a surprise each time nonetheless.