A CHRISTMAS TALE: Familial Dysfunction Just In Time For The Holidays
From 2008, French film A Christmas Tale offers a different type of holiday film - one that is melancholy, depressing, and yet also intriguing.
The initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin‘s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. I’ve no qualms whatsoever admitting that I became completely engrossed in her career going up to the present day after seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). And she’s truly wonderful giving a scintillating yet nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. Oftentimes it’s the easily criticized qualities in others that we aren’t willing to see in ourselves.
But the same goes for her entire family. There are contours present that feel all too realistic – all too relatable to some of us. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is probably too sterile a descriptor. Messy fits what they are right out in the open. If you think your family is bad around the holidays (I consider myself very lucky), the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.
For some, this warts-and-all approach might prove a refreshing change of pace to treacly holiday sentiment. However, others might do better to avoid Desplechin‘s film which, while being one of the more honest Christmas movies, is simultaneously a more depressing one. There’s nothing wrong with that, but know that you’ve been fairly warned.
Christmas Dinner with Stakes
The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Cherbourg, Belle de Jour, and The Last Metro. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale far from a tearful sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.
And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny), who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the “black sheep” of the clan, while the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.
Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.
But with Junon’s news, she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet. If the premise sounds vaguely familiar, some Christmas special aficionados might recall The Gathering (1977), starring a terminally ill Ed Asner.
In this particular instance, underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of their own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.
Melancholy Yuletide Offerings
There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christmas Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness and frank nature are balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.
Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before, but whether they are better for it is up for debate.
The sentimentality of an It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context, but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything – faith in their family is ludicrous – their world looks utterly hopeless.
The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity, staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus), and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. Whether he’s referring to Jesus or Santa seems to make little difference. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs. It simply feels counter to everything that we have been taught about this season. Admittedly, right about this time every year my idealism begins to overpower my own cynical urges. I’ll readily concede that.
But even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. It’s almost as if they’re looking for something that this religious liturgy might be able to impart to them. However, during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?
A Christmas Tale
It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays. It only helps magnify the absurdity of it all.
But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family – maybe a lot like yours and mine – this film is a fascinating exposé that might well prompt some seasonal self-reflection.
What is your favorite non-traditional or unique Christmas movie? What about it specifically makes it resonate with you?
A Christmas Tale was originally released in the U.S. in 2008. It can be streamed on Amazon or purchased through the Criterion Collection.
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