A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale


Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

Leo Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina with the truism that: “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and never was this more appropriate than in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (Un Conte De Noël). It describes the trials and tribulations of the Vuillard family as they come to terms with the devastating news that the matriarch of the family, Junon (played with relish by the inimitable Catherine Deneuve), has been diagnosed with cancer and must have a bone-marrow transplant in order to survive.

Struggling to locate a donor at such short notice, her only hope is to find a compatible match from her family. But will they find someone suitable in time to save Junon and will the disparate members of the family be able to put aside their past grievances and personal agendas for the greater good?

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Don’t let the title fool you into thinking that this will be another saccharine tale about jolly santas, merry elves and red-nosed reindeer. The only link to the festive season is the timing of events within the film, which is centred on a Christmas family gathering and a long-awaited reunion between estranged siblings Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and her maverick younger brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who is returning after an enforced five-year ‘banishment’ from the family circle.

This is certainly not standard, undemanding Christmas fare; it is an altogether darker tale of a family torn apart by the tragic loss of their young son at the tender age of six and then brought together many years later by the same illness, which now threatens to engulf their mother. The family is also haunted by the spectre of mental illness with youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Popaud) once affected by schizophrenia, which is now the burden of Elizabeth’s son Paul (Emile Berling).

In a standout cast, drawn from the highest echelons of contemporary French cinema, Deneuve and Anne Consigny are both excellent in the respective roles of Junon and Elizabeth, but it is Amalric who steals the show as the prodigal son Henri, cast out for five years by his sister and now finally invited back (albeit with reservations) into the family. He captures the essence of Henri’s contradictions, brilliantly oscillating between self-pity and self-loathing, unable to come to terms with his mother’s inability to love him and his sister’s extreme hostility towards his existence.

As a character study and exploration of family tensions the film works exceptionally well, intelligently withholding key information about the characters’ past and their relationships to keep the audience guessing about what they will do next. However, while the subsequent responses and actions of the characters remain a mystery, there is no question about who is pulling the strings here as Desplechin displays masterful control of both his story and his cast.

This control is playfully alluded to in the film’s opening sequence, which uses shadow-puppets and a narrative voiceover to cover the events surrounding the family’s tragic loss of their young son in the 1960s. A Christmas Tale is a truly innovative piece of filmmaking which mixes cinema-verité style documentary with a knowing postmodern self-consciousness (which occasionally sees characters waxing lyrical directly to camera), woven together with a haunting, often menacing score, which holds the attention throughout the whole of its two-and-a-half hour running time. In keeping with its postmodern tendencies, the film refuses to offer easy answers or definitive solutions to the problems of the Vuillard family and commendably sticks to its guns right to the very end.

Just one tiny word of warning: keeping track of the film’s large cast of characters and complex web of family relations and storylines proves to be quite a challenge and you may have to see it more than once to fully appreciate everything that’s going on. This minor quibble notwithstanding, I absolutely recommend this film as an excellent exploration of the deep, dark secrets at the heart of the family unit and the tensions which both divide and unite blood relations.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2008
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Ensemble drama about a family brought together - and, possibility on course to be torn apart - by the illness of their matriarch.
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Director: Arnaud Desplechin

Writer: Emmanuel Bourdieu, Arnaud Desplechin

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Emile Berling, Emmanuelle Devos

Year: 2008

Runtime: 150 minutes

Country: France

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