DVD Review: Christmas Tale – Not Your Standard Christmas Fare
“Often at midnight we eat a newborn or crucify ourselves in the garden.” This is how a character describes his family’s holiday festivities in “A Christmas Tale,” Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 dramedy, just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. An exaggeration, certainly, but only a slight one: overdoses, bloody noses, and schizophrenia all factor into the mix here. “It’s A Wonderful Life” it’s not. But while it may lack ringing bells and angel’s wings, Tale still proves an insightful, oddly affecting examination of the complexities of familial relations.
Bad blood, as both a literal and metaphorical complaint, is the central theme of “A Christmas Tale.” Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), matriarch of a large family, learns she has a rare blood cancer. Only a marrow transplant from a blood relative can save her. This dilemma raises compelling questions — who should make what sacrifices and why? what are a parent’s moral obligations to a child, and vice versa? — which the film examines with a philosophical yet sympathetic eye. As the family gathers together, the debate over these issues brings old wounds and animosities to the surface.
At first glance, the Vuillards seem a difficult lot to root for. Junon’s husband and son-in-law coolly calculate her odds for survival on a chalkboard. A sister banishes her brother from the family; adultery unfolds casually in front of the eyes of children. Fortunately, Desplechin’s universe is expansive and filled with a great generosity of spirit; being unlikable doesn’t make characters undeserving of empathy. When Junon and her prodigal son (Mathieu Amalric) confess they never loved one another, they do so with relieved, conspiratorial giggles. There’s an implicit and wise understanding that, when it comes to our families, we often feel things we’re not supposed to feel, and that, when we do, it’s not the end of the world.
The weighty subject matter makes “Tale” sound like a glum affair. This belies the sometimes wicked, sometimes effusive humor on display here. Saying what you really feel about your family often makes for funny stuff. Beyond that, the film frequently and effectively traverses the line between melancholy and jubilation.
The stellar cast contributes significantly to this heady, volatile atmosphere. To single out actors in such a fine ensemble seems cruel, but if we must give out gold stars the first should undoubtedly go to Deneuve. Junon is imperious, monstrous even, but she’s also clearly vulnerable in the face of her own mortality. The fleeting moments where teary anguish crosses her face break your heart.
Jean-Paul Roussillon does excellent work as Junon’s avuncular husband, befuddled and impotent before his family’s troubles, as does Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s daughter) as the sister-in-law dumbstruck by the revelation of family secrets. And attention, as always, must be paid to Amalric. He takes familiar archetypes — the lovable asshole, the drunk who speaks uncomfortable truths — and turns them into something unique and nuanced. He makes his Henri delightfully, rambunctiously distasteful while hinting at the pain beneath the manic energy.
Tale works assiduously to merit its running time; it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, but feels much shorter. It is, for lack of a better term, wonderfully overstuffed. Rich metaphors abound, and the film references sources as diverse as Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Nietzsche and Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Saturated colors fill the frame; shot compositions are striking and elegant. The soundtrack, ranging from Motown to harpsichord to hip-hop, adds richness and depth. Desplechin also uses unexpected narrative techniques — paper silhouettes, children’s plays, split screens, characters speaking directly to the camera — that have something sophisticated to say about how we filter our family life through stories we tell ourselves.
In addition to the gorgeous HD transfer, the two-disc set includes two featurettes: “Arnaud’s Tale,” a revealing making-of featuring interviews with Desplechin, Deneuve, and Amalric, and “L’Aimée,” Desplechin’s 2007 documentary about the sale of his family home. This lovely, sentimental piece develops into an oral history of Desplechin’s paternal grandmother, who died when his father was an infant. Here we first find what will become the central tenet of “A Christmas Tale”: we build myths around our families, and breaking free of the myths is the challenge of adulthood.
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