“A Christmas Tale” is a strange piece of movie-making, but quite effective for all of that. It turns many conventions on their heads, and does so both with a naturalistic flare and innovative camera work. It is the story of an unruly, dysfunctional family, their squabbles and their secrets, with few, if any, resolutions. It’s not your typical holiday movie. It’s not even a typical holiday movie sending up other holiday movies. It seems without genre, though the director, Arnaud Desplechin, samples from other movies like “Funny Face”, “The Ten Commandments”, and Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He sometimes points his actors at the audience to give soliloquies as well, borrowing yet again from Shakespeare.
Cancer is both a reality and a metaphor in “A Christmas Tale”, but is used lightly, strangely enough. Lightly, like a coat that can be taken off, even though it can’t be. The audience discovers, soon enough, that this family doesn’t play by the usual rules, even though it goes about its day in a “normal” enough fashion at first glance. We get to spend enough time watching the generations of the Vuillard family interacting to move beyond that first glance.
The characters in the movie don’t seem to fear cancer, nor do they make it into some great pivot point in their lives. The death of one sibling (Joseph) at six years old takes place offstage, is a memory, perhaps fading, but marks much of the rest of the film. The Vuillard family seems, on the surface at least, unaffected by this tragedy, almost detached from it, especially the parents. Though at least two in the family suffer from physical and mental maladies that appear to be echoes of the original disease.
The film has an excellent ensemble cast. It’s almost democratic in its story telling, as Milan Kundera might say. It has multiple points of view, layered, crossing time and place. It is not always easy to pick out the protagonists. Many of the characters are key, essential, for a moment, then the film moves on. But one remains always the matriarch. Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the mother of Joseph who died, and Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric) who live. Elizabeth hates Henri, and banished him for six years prior to the Christmas gathering. We never learn why she hates him, though we get some clues. Junon doesn’t seem to care for Henri too much, either, and is frank about that. Henri seems to take this in stride as a normal thing, having a mother who doesn’t much care for him. They both seem to like each other for realizing they don’t.
Junon discovers that she has cancer, and that she needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. She also learns that she doesn’t have a great chance regardless, and that the transplant could actually kill the donor. She decides to go through with it anyway, and the only compatible donors are Henri (the irony!) and Paul, her grandson. Paul is, along with Henri, suffering from a disease. His is mental and involves hallucinations. Henri just seems completely screwed up, physically and mentally, though he’s actually “okay” with it.
The Christmas gathering is perhaps their last as a family. Or perhaps the first in a long time and harbinger of more. Either way, I enjoyed spending a couple of hours watching this strange, funny, dysfunctional family, with its secrets, hatreds, indifference, turn things gracefully, clumsily, naturally upside down.
A Christmas Tale