Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Christmas Tale

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Christmas Tale


Despite its cheerful Yuletide title – which is in fact so warm and snug as to initiate Grinch or Scrooge-like reactions post-haste – A Christmas Tale displays all the surface signs of being a cynical, darkly comical take on the holiday. The director, Arnaud Desplechin, has already made a specialty of family dysfunction, asocial charm, and passive-aggressive relationships in his 2004 film, Kings and Queen. Matieu Amalric, who played the slightly mad musician in that one, returns as another difficult personality – this one possibly more sane, if no less aggravating. In this round of Desplechin’s friendly feud with the nuclear family, Almaric plays Henri, the middle child of grand old eccentrics Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon Vuitton (Catherine Deneuve). Henri is returning home (to Roubaix! the opening credits inform us, exclamation point and all) for his first holiday celebration in years – ever since his older sister banished him from her sight. And that’s only one crumbling cornerstone of the family edifice: death, illness, depression, infidelity, age-old scars and new wounds alike, are all ingredients in the tastily rancid eggnog Depleschin serves up with delight. Ultimately, given the nuggets of dysfunction stuffed into the film’s bulky stocking (and A Christmas Tale runs for 2 1/2 hours), it almost goes without saying that the movie has, more or less, a happy ending.

Indeed, while Kings and Queen did not exactly conclude with the Apocalypse, it nonetheless harbored several discordant notes of ambiguity even amidst its tentative resolutions of the characters' crisis. A Christmas Tale, by comparison, settles almost all of its scores - albeit without seeming too pat or trite, which is quite an accomplishment given how much Desplechin lines up to be resolved. The ribbon may be ratty and the wrapping paper dissheveled, but the bow is nonetheless tied on by December 25. This seems to be Desplechin's way of paying tribute to the "no place like home for the holidays" genre without entirely subverting his subversion. The movie's loose premise is familiar enough from numerous films which hit theaters around this time (A Christmas Tale reached American shores about a year ago; in France, oddly enough, it was released in May). The whole Vuillard clan clusters around the old family home for that final stretch of the pre-Christmas season; new lovers are introduced into the family portrait (they hang onto the frame for dear life), old injuries and resentments come to light, a Christmas dinner is spoiled by arguments and fights, secrets are revealed, and eventually everyone ends up still breathing by Christmas morning, perhaps even a little more reconciled.

The subversiveness of Desplechin's Tale is not so much in the breadth of its dysfunction (which is familiar enough after decades of ironic Christmas stories - from A Christmas Story itself, through the Griswald's Christmas Vacation, to the more recent Diane Keaton-Sarah Jessica Parker The Family Stone, with which Tale shares a crucial plot point). Rather, it's the depths Desplechin plumbs which reveal his own signature touch - those depths and also the weird, eccentric gusto with which he brings them to life ("realism" is stretched about as thin as can be without quite breaking). The charming, but more than slightly cruel mother, doesn't just have difficulty with her son - she doesn't like him, and has no problem telling him so to his face, with a smile. (He smiles back, and tries to make a joke out of it, but we can see the pain in his eyes.) Brother and sister's feud has extended for five years, and Henri has to sneak meetings with the rest of his family. That sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), has a teenage son suffering from deep depression; he's recently been hospitalized after a violent breakdown, and when he looks in a mirror he sees black dogs and (in a particularly creepy scene) his own reflection sneering back at him. Youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupard) seems the most well-adjusted of the bunch, with cute, hyperactive twin boys and a normal, pretty wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni - of her own notable family, that Marcello being her father and this film's legendary Deneuve being her mother). Yet Sylvia has her own crisis to face: the discovery of how she got with her husband in the first place, and how Ivan's lifelong friend Simon (Laurence Capelluto) has brooded and secretly pined for her ever since. What she considers doing about this - and how Ivan responds - may surprise viewers used to American family Christmases, but hey, they're French - vive la différence!

The star crowning the family tree (I'm being paid by the Christmas metaphor, if you haven't noticed) is Junot's illness. The Vuillards matriarch - whose regal bearing alongside her doddering husband lets us know who wears the pants in the family - has been diagnosed with a very dangerous cancer, and she needs a bone marrow transplant. We've already been informed - via animation in the opening minutes accompanied by a slightly strange graveside monologue delivered by Mr. Vuillard - that the family's pride and joy, eldest son Joseph, wasted away as a child from a similar ailment. Indeed, this may be the ultimate source of the family's misery: Elizabeth feels his loss in subtle ways though she does not remember him, Henri was conceived only to donate bone marrow (he did not have the right blood type, and has been resented ever since), and Ivan arrived after the fact and, ironically, with the right blood type. With this history in mind, much stress is put on saving Junot's life, even as her cancer is treated in light, sometimes comical, terms. As in the Keaton film, death and illness hover over a family gathering - but whereas there the grief brought people together, here it only increases the bitter competition: who will get to donate the marrow to Mom? Ultimately it's seen as both a way to heal old wounds and potentially a way to exact revenge - such are the subtle intonations of Desplechin's intergenerational relationships.

A Christmas Tale is obviously influenced by a number of other films, not just Christmas ones. Desplechin has openly cited his admiration for Ingmar Bergman, and the Swede's mood of regret and barely buried pain (as well as his sometimes forgotten light touch) can be felt, in part filtered through some of Woody Allen's films, which also borrowed from Bergman. But perhaps the strongest connection exists with a more recent film: Wes Anderson's 2001 eccentric family opus to end eccentric family opuses, The Royal Tenenbaums. Everything from the family dynamic to the storytelling strategies seems touched by Anderson's rather seminal film (which has had a still-resounding aesthetic impact on 00s pop culture; here, however, the influence is thematic and structural rather than aesthetic). There are the three siblings - a morose playwright older sister, a brooding brother who feels unloved, and the younger brother (though the characters here are quite different, Melvil Poupard at times looks uncannily like Luke Wilson). Then the difficult parent with claims of cancer (here the mother, there the father, both played by legendary actors). Also the family friend who feels like he's a part of the family, yet remains somewhat outside, trying to hide his hurt. And even a hint of incest - though it's at once less coy and more subtle here than in Tenenbaums.

Whether A Christmas Tale is intended as a darker, more "realistic" take on Royal Tenenbaums or an affectionate Gallic tribute (or both) is uncertain. The similarities and differences are telling, particularly when it comes to the auteurs in question. Anderson's affairs are mannered and melancholy, with the dysfunction just one more delicately melodious element in the mise en scene. Desplechin likes his movies - at least this one and Kings and Queen - messier, more raw, with the subversion both more aggressive and more openly comical. Yet both filmmakers (along with their co-writers, Owen Wilson in Anderson's case, Emmanuel Bourdieu in Desplechin's) display a great deal of affection for their characters and enjoy finding unique, unexpected solutions to the problems they pose. In A Christmas Tale, the spirit of the holidays finally settles over the brooding brood, with a respectful visit to the chapel by Junot and Ivan (along with Elizabeth's young son, who surprises the elders with his reverance - a visionary mystic in the making?). Henri unexpectedly bonds with his estranged nephew, Simon and Sylvia come to a better understanding of their predicament, and Junot finally chooses a donor. The final scene of the film is a wonderfully ironic passage on numerous levels, tying together numerous themes (and read no further if you don't want to know whom she selects as her life-giver).

Having taken a part of Henri into herself, she now has to accept him as a son - and as he stands outside the hospital tent gazing in on her, it's as if he's the mother and she's the child, a nice little reversal that echoes his very reason for being born: to save a life (and ironically, it's because he shares her own blood type that he could not). Finally, of course, it's Christmastime or thereabouts, and if it's rather surprising to consider Henri as a Christlike figure, or Junot, Greek allusions aside, as the anti-Madonna in her clinical nativity, it's also perfectly in keeping with Desplechin's warped, wry, yet sincere holiday spirit. Like a child's homemade creche, this family portrait may be haphazard and awry: baby Jesus missing his head, the manger's roof on verge of collapse, and the shepherd's staff looking more like a wilting candy cane - and, besides, we're pretty sure there were no velociraptors in Bethlehem. However, like the hand-crafted scenes we always value most, this one comes from the heart - a heart that, despite initial appearances, is not two sizes too small.

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