Only a few days before the sugar plums and wassail are set on the table, Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), the grand matriarch of a family of lunatics, is diagnosed with a serious case of lymphoma, the same disease that already claimed her eldest son Joseph. The film opens with her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) mourning over his son with a startlingly breezy candor. Employing shadow puppets, the lineage of the Vuillard family in its current incarnation is explained, leading to Ivan (Melvil Poupad), the youngest of Junon's children.
As the rest of the family, including daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and her suicidal son Paul (Emile Berling), descend on the home, a search begins for bone marrow that matches Junon's. Two matches are found: Paul and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the enfant terrible of the family that has long been banished by Elizabeth after she bailed him out of financial ruin. He returns to his family home piss drunk with his new lady friend Faunia (the radiant Emmanuelle Devos), fully prepared to pour salt in every familial wound he can locate, including the mutual distaste felt between Junon and himself.
Unlike the striking Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale's story is very familiar, but its production, execution, and dialogue are so rich and surprising that you can hardly tell that its basic structure is just a few plot twists away from The Family Stone. Taking several notes from and offering many nods to The Rules of the Game, Desplechin articulates the stories of each member of the Vuillard family with stunning nuance, even making room for Junon's nephew Simon (an excellent Laurent Capelluto) who harbors a deep love for Ivan's wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Deneuve and the late Marcello Mastroianni).
At several key moments, the characters address the camera directly, but none of them to the same end. Deneuve uses her candid moment beyond the fourth wall to sum up the story so far a good 30 minutes in. Like the ailing father in Queen, Amalric reveals the contents of a highly personal correspondence with his time. Whereas this conceit would normally disrupt the consistency and pacing of a film, these confessionals blend seamlessly into Desplechin's emotional tapestry. Like few other living directors, Desplechin bravely allows the technical aspects of his film to shift along with the emotional and narrative movements of his script.
No one needs reminding of Deneuve's immeasurable talents, but witness Desplechin's ability with the rest of the cast. The director gives Consigny a fickle, delicate creature to play and the actress' lovely, expressive face fluidly fluctuates among crippling worry, blatant embarrassment, and hesitant joy. Poupaud's role is the film's most internalized, but he gives a lively and alert performance that accentuates a matured vulnerability. And what else can be said about Mathieu Amalric? One of the great modern actors of our time -- he also plays the villain to James Bond this weekend -- Amalric brilliantly infuses the demonic Henri with spontaneous physicality, matching the flourish of prodding criticisms he doles out to his family. His exchanges with Deneuve are some of the most memorable verbal assaults of the year.
Coming in at 151 minutes, A Christmas Tale is briskly paced but never hurried. What may be even more surprising is how jubilant the film is despite its morose central themes: antibiotics, disease, death, medical procedures, recovery. Psychology and sentimentality are obtrusive elements in Desplechin's world and his precise deconstruction of the holiday film has a genuine fascination with evoking emotions through imagery rather than rote catharsis. His defamiliarization of the family dramedy, away from brazen quirkiness, reveals a direct route to these complexly woven relationships, his dialectical gymnastics more direct and less distracting. Presided over by the matron saint of cinema, A Christmas Tale is a work of intoxicating genius.
Aka Un conte de Noël.
Don't you know those things will give you cancer?
Run time: 150 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 21st May 2008
Box Office USA: $0.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $7.4M
Distributed by: IFC Films
Production compaines: Why Not Productions, France 2 Cinéma, Wild Bunch, Bac Films, Canal+, CinéCinéma, Centre National de la Cinématographie, C.R.R.A.V. Nord Pas de Calais, Région Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Sofica UGC 1
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 104 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Starring: Catherine Deneuve as Junon, Anne Consigny as Elizabeth, their oldest child, Jean-Paul Roussillon as Abel, Junon's husband, Mathieu Amalric as Henri, their middle child, Emile Berling as Paull, Elizabeth and Claude's son, Melvil Poupaud as Ivan, their youngest child, Chiara Mastroianni as Sylvia, Ivan's wife, Hélène Darras as The Saleswoman, Hippolyte Girardot as Claude, Elizabeth's husband, Emmanuelle Devos as Faunia, Henri's lover, Laurent Capelluto as Simon, Junon's nephew - the painter cousin, Emile Berling as Paull, Elizabeth and Claude's son, Thomas Obled as Basile, Ivan and Sylvia's son, Clément Obled as Baptiste, Ivan and Sylvia's son, Françoise Bertin as Rosaimée, Abel's mother's girlfriend, Samir Guesmi as Spatafora, the family friend at Roubaix, Azize Kabouche as Doctor Zraïdi, the oncologist