Thursday, October 29, 2009

DVD Views: A Christmas Tale (2008)

A Christmas Tale ****
Directed by:
Arnaud Desplechin.
Written By: Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu.
Starring: Catherine Deneuve (Junon), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel), Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri), Melvil Poupaud (Ivan), Hippolyte Girardot (Claude), Emmanuelle Devos (Faunia), Chiara Mastroianni (Sylvia), Laurent Capelluto (Simon), Emile Berling (Paull), Thomas Obled (Basile), Clément Obled (Baptiste), Françoise Bertin (Rosaimée), Samir Guesmi (Spatafora).

A Christmas Tale is a film about a large family getting together for Christmas for the first time in years. This is a family that has a lot of unresolved issues, all seemingly stemming for their eldest child’s death of leukemia as a child. At the time, the parents Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) only had one other child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). None of them was a match for bone marrow transplantation. So they decided to have another child, Henri (Mathieu Almaric). When it turns out that Henri is also not a match, the oldest son dies, and the mother never really forgives Henri - hating him for his entire life. Eventually, the couple has another child, Ivan (Melvi Poupaud), and the parents love him too.

Probably at least in part because of this, Henri winds up a selfish asshole in his adult life. Elizabeth finally gets fed up with his antics, and agrees to bail him out of trouble one last time, but has a condition - Henri is to be banished from the family. The rest of the family can see him when they want, but anytime Elizabeth is around, Henri is not to be there. Five years pass, and although Henri is still upset, everyone else seems fine with the arrangement.

But then, Junon is diagnosed with leukemia herself and needs a bone marrow transplant. All the kids and the grandkids are tested to see if there is a match. Only two come back positive. One is for Paull, Elizabeth’s son, who has inherited another one of the family burdens - mentally illness, and has just got out of the hospital after a mental breakdown. The other match is, of course, Henri. The entire family gathers together for four days over Christmas.

There are other plot threads running throughout the film. Henri has brought along Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), a gorgeous Jewish woman to the celebration, and everyone in the family seems to like her more than Henri. Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) has just found out that his cousin, Simon (Laurent Capelluto) has been in love with her for years. When she met Ivan, she met Henri and Simon at the same time - eventually sleeping with Henri before settling down with Ivan. But she always liked Simon, and when she finds out that he “gave” her to Ivan, she is pissed off.

A Christmas Tale is essentially two and half hours of talk. Played out in a series of brilliant conversations, that ranges from the comic to the tragic, often in the same scene. To further complicate things, Desplechin plays with the tone of the movie by using music in strange ways. At times when the conversations are about the most serious subjects, he has cheery music playing the background. And the reverse is also true. This gives scenes a strange feel to them, but essentially this serves to only heighten the emotions.

The performances in the movie are all amazing. Deneuve is one of the best actresses in the history of movies, delivers yet another great performance here. She plays a woman who is utterly incapable of hiding her feelings for her family members. When Faunia asks her why she likes her, and yet hates Sylvia, she says that it’s because she’s with the son she doesn’t like. And yet, she is never exactly mean about it, just rather matter of fact about it. Jean-Paul Roussillon is excellent as Abel, a man who is just trying to hold onto his family, and yet has no real idea as to how to do that. Anne Consigny delivers a remarkable performance as Elizabeth, a woman has no real power, and so she tries to control everything around her. When it turns out that only her mentally unstable son and Henri can donate marrow to her mother, she is determined to get her son to be the donor - because to her Henri is poison, and she doesn’t want even that much of him around when she’s with her mother. By the end, she has learned to simply let some things go. And finally, there is the brilliant Mathieu Almaric, last seen playing a Bond villain, now playing a charming womanizer, drunken asshole. It is easy to see why Elizabeth hates him so much, and yet it’s hard not to at least kind of like him. He has that sort of irascible grin that puts you at ease. The rest of the cast easily matches these four brilliant actors in their performances.

The film is essentially about the lasting legacy that your family leaves you. Quite literally, because of the bone marrow, these people are part of each other. The other legacy that is passed down throughout the family is mental illness. The people in this film all have mental issues - some more serious than others, but all of them are should probably be seeing a psychiatrist.

Desplechin’s film fits firmly in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, at times more firmly in one of them than the other. Like those masters, he looks at his characters in all their flawed humanity, and doesn’t really try to solve anything. While at the end of the film, it certainly seems like this family is heading down the right path, perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps they can never truly be a “functional” family. But that is what makes them more normal. When Claude, Elizabeth’s husband, storms out of the house because he cannot take all the “drama”, he’s the one who looks like an idiot. Dysfunction is a part of every family. And in this way, the family at the center of A Christmas Tale is more like our own than we would probably like to admit.

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