What a lovely, vinegary holiday film we have in "A Christmas Tale," from the French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin. It's a simple picture about complicated people, the members and sometime-combatants of the extended Vuillard family, whose home base is a capacious old flat in the northern French city of Roubaix.
There, aging Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) owns a dye factory, and his wife, Junon, rules the roost like a provincial Catherine Deneuve. Junon is in fact played by Catherine Deneuve. It's a tribute to this superlatively acted ensemble affair that her performance and Roussillon's are but two of a dozen memorable portrayals.
The coming-attractions trailer for "A Christmas Tale" makes the film look routinely wacky and heartwarming. To be sure, the plot concocted by Desplechin and co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu is the stuff of a hundred soap operas. Junon has cancer and requires a bone-marrow transplant. Two members of her fractious family qualify as donors. One is Henri (Mathieu Almaric, a frequent and inspired Desplechin collaborator), the reckless son who years ago was bailed out of his money troubles by sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), on condition of his banishment from all future family dealings. The other donor match is young Paul, Elizabeth's troubled teenage son.
Taking place over a few days around Christmastime, the film's narrative may be more conventional than Desplechin's earlier work, but it's as juicy and tonally unpredictable as anything he has made. In an interview for the DVD edition of the Desplechin film "Kings and Queen," Almaric acknowledged that when filming one of his movies, half the time the actor wasn't sure what sort of emotional attack he was supposed to be bringing to a scene. That's the way the director wants it. Anything to avoid the obvious. As a result, each new confrontation has within it a spark of paradox and contradiction. Recriminations delivered with a smile; sudden bursts of anger in the middle of revelry; that's why Desplechin's pictures have such vitality.
His latest is shadowed by great loss. We learn early that Junon and Abel had a son who died at age 6. A classic Desplechin paradox bubbles up in the eulogy delivered by Abel. "My son is dead," he says, smiling, but I feel "no grief." The words of this disarming speech were inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's diary entry regarding the death of his own child. Throughout the picture, which runs two and a half hours at a confident gait, there are allusions to Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," mentions of a magical wolf that lives in the cellar, intimations of long-held grudges and romantic sparks.
By now Desplechin has absorbed his techniques so effortlessly they're like breathing, or seem that way on film. He'll try anything: split-screen effects, monologues addressed to the camera, shadow puppetry. (If it were it up to me, all expositional matter in all films would be accompanied by a puppet show.) "A Christmas Tale" glances on a world of feelings and surprises, from Junon's casual anti-Semitism -- Henri's latest lover, a Jew, is played by the excellent Emmanuelle Devos -- to the vexing exhilaration accompanying a dangerously fraught inter-family affair. As with Desplechin's breakthrough film "My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument" and the more recent "Kings and Queen," "A Christmas Tale" doesn't go in for handy morals or tidy reversals. His films are great, chaotic, unsettling fun. This one's scored, elegantly, to a mixture of standards and classics and original music by Gregoire Hetzel, and as happy as I was to see and hear it the first time, it was even richer the second.
A Christmas Tale by Arnaud Desplechin Movie Trailer
No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for language and sexual themes).
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin; written by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu; photographed by Eric Gautier; edited by Laurence Briaud; music by Gregoire Hetzel; production designed by Dan Bevan; produced by Pascal Caucheteux. An IFC Films release.
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A Christmas Tale stars Catherine Deneuve (Junon); Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel); Anne Consigny (Elizabeth); Mathieu Almaric (Henri); Melvil Poupaud (Ivan); Emmanuelle Devos (Faunia); Chiara Mastroianni (Sylvia).
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