Holiday films (like most presents given and received) tend to be wrapped in the most customary of packaging. Be it made for simple laughs or with genuine sincerity; tagged especially for children or designated only for adults, holiday films are often overly faithful to a well-tested design and rarely deviate from tradition. All of which makes perfect sense considering that when it comes to actual gifts – holiday, birthday, anniversary or otherwise – even children know to disregard the wrapping. It’s not the fancy paper, bows, box or bag that we covet but what lay hidden inside. It’s important to remember this as you sit down during this holiday season and filter through the ever-expanding collection of holiday movies; not all on offer is playful glitter or surface-level pretty, nor should it be.
On the surface the 2008 French film A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) appears to be made from the same generic stock as countless other holiday movies. All the requisite elements of dysfunctional holiday melodrama are on display: estrangement, feuding siblings, long simmering jealousies, unspoken desires, sex, death, illness, laughter and loyalty. All played out in the crowded rooms of overgrown children and fueled by too much food and alcohol. The ingredients may be the same but what sets A Christmas Tale apart from so many Hollywood offerings is its total disregard for following the rules of this traditional cinematic recipe.
The central story revolves around the annual gathering of the Vuillard family for Christmas. Sitting regally at the top of this dysfunctional family are Junon (the inimitable Catherine Deneuve) and her husband, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon). Theirs is a full and complicated life mirrored in the well-worn but controlled chaos of their stately family home in the small northern French city of Roubaix.
Joining them are their three adult children: the eldest and tragically responsible Élizabeth (Anne Consigny); the volatile and prodigal middle child, Henri (Mathieu Amalric); and the kind, pure-hearted youngest child, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud). As distinct a presence as each sibling is, none is as favored as Joseph, the Vuillard’s first-born son who died of cancer as a young boy. His ghost is an ever-present force that both highlights the unhealed wounds of the Vuillards and animates the lives of each family member in ways that his life most likely never could have.
All family reunions are fraught with heightened tension and emotional immediacy, but for the Vuillards this Christmas gathering proves even more so. For Junon has recently been diagnosed with cancer and her only hope of survival is a dangerous bone marrow transplant, which her body may very likely violently reject. As they gather for Christmas the entire family (children and grandchildren alike) await word on whether any of them will prove to be a suitable match.
A clean plot summary is impossible, for there is so much to digest in A Christmas Tale. The film is less a straightforward narrative than a cinematic collection of personal moments and reflections. The film is novelistic in its approach and achieves an intimacy and quiet authority through its attention to the role individual stories play in a larger tapestry. Whilst there is a profound sadness pulsating at the heart and prickly edges of A Christmas Tale, it is leavened and saved by the steady direction of Arnaud Desplechin. There is an unmistakable playfulness in Desplechin’s handling of all the various storylines and characters, which allows for exploration and freedom.
What prevents A Christmas Tale from slipping into simple melodrama is the combined strength of Desplechin’s direction and the immense talent of its assembled cast. Though discussed to the point of fatigue, it has never been an understatement to claim Deneuve as a film legend whose greatness rests not in the created myth of her image, but in the strength of her work. Her role here as the Vuillard matriarch is played with great skill and quiet assurance that adds depth and texture to a character that could be dismissed as cruel. Truly an ensemble piece Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos (as Henri’s girlfriend, Faunia) and Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s real life daughter, cheekily cast here as her daughter-in-law) are especially noteworthy.
The richness of A Christmas Tale lies in it inherent contradictions; pieces do not fit easily together (or at all), the characters defy categorization and storylines are not easily resolved. There is, however, great beauty and grace in the uncertainty and chaos. At the end the Vuillards are as elusive to the audience as they are to each other. This is not a criticism, but rather a note of distinction and praise. In A Christmas Tale, Desplechin has skillfully crafted a story of one family’s continuing journey through life’s magnificent imperfections.
Criterion has once again applied their attentively luxurious treatment to the Blu-Ray and DVD release of A Christmas Tale. Alongside the standard digital transfer upgrade in this two disc set are a host of extras including ‘L’aimée, a touching documentary on the sale of Desplechin’s family home that both informs and enlightens his direction on A Christmas Tale, in-depth interviews with the cast and crew, official trailers and an informative essay by film scholar Phillip Lopate.
Just as the Vuillards may not be able to articulate what binds them together as a family, their strength is drawn from their collective and individual willingness to explore. The DVD release of A Christmas Tale is a wonderful treat for audiences who crave a bit more from holiday films—quite a bit more.