A Christmas Tale (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] (Version française) [Import]
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In Arnaud Desplechin's beguiling A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel), Catherine Deneuve brings her legendary poise to the role of Junon, matriarch of the troubled Vuillard family, who come together at Christmas after she learns she needs a bone marrow transplant from a blood relative. That simple family reunion setup, however, can't begin to describe the unpredictable, emotionally volatile experience of this film, an inventive, magical drama that's equal parts merriment and melancholy. Unrequited childhood loves and blinding grudges, brutal outbursts and sudden slapstick, music, movies, and poetry, A Christmas Tale ties it all together in a marvelously messy package.
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The mother, father, three siblings, assorted cousins and spouses that populate this family tree all have a psychic tie to a withered root, namely the firstborn son, Joseph, who died of a rare cancer at age six. Elizabeth, the oldest surviving child, complains of a grief that has no apparent source. She is the type of person we all have met at some time in our lives, someone whose main grievance is that she feels herself to be inadequately aggrieved. She completely surrenders herself to the false martyrdom of self-pity, willingly clutching each grudge to her bosom, even as it drains her of life and poisons everyone around her.
We see how Henri, the middle child, becomes Elizabeth's chosen victim, and Ivan, the youngest, tries to mollify everyone. All of this has a decidedly theatrical effect. The family members are depicted as performers just as much as the Ekdahls are in Fanny and Alexander (Special Edition Five-Disc Set) - Criterion Collection, with whose first 90 minutes A CHRISTMAS TALE bears more than a passing resemblance. This masquerade also has, as a point of reference, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, both in the brief appearance of the 1935 movie on the TV screen, and in Mendelssohn's incidental music, playing on the soundtrack.
The directorial style of this film is something all its own. It uses film grammar from every era of cinema history, throwing it all into one big pot. Somehow it works. I kept thinking of Harold Bloom's assertion that "strangeness" is the quality that distinguishes lasting works of art. There is the strangeness that so assimilates us that we no longer see it as strange: Shakespeare, Griffith, Hitchcock. And there is the strangeness that cannot be assimilated: Sterne, Beckett, Buñuel.
A CHRISTMAS TALE possesses the latter variety of strangeness. You're not going to pull this out and watch it every holiday season. But you may choose to see it repeatedly for the fascinating, dreamlike dance in the interaction of its characters.
Oh well, we can't all love the same things. Some balk at the `Frenchness' of this film and I say "give me more" considering that the French make, by far, the best films ever. Seriously, when is `French' a negative term when describing a film? Also, this is a FRENCH film, so why weren't you expecting it to be `very French'? Yes, this is French in the way it is molded, but it is also a more serious mined French film. This isn't indicative of the New Wave cinema of the past and so while the scenarios painted and the actions of certain individuals may not feel `American' and may feel `foreign' to us, there is a sincerity here, an honesty that really befits the nature of the film. This is more comparable to 2009's `Summer Hours' in tone and overall impact. There is style in the layout and there are moments of flamboyance, but they are tapered to present a more natural and relaxed reality.
The film tells the story of a dysfunctional family reuniting for Christmas after word of the matriarch's cancer spreads. As told with puppetry, the family had a rocky beginning, and as told in flashbacks, those rocks only got bigger as the family grew. The tumultuous relationships between siblings spawned divisions in the entire family that lasted far too long. The reuniting was almost like a rebirth, and while tempers flared and egos manifested ugly heads, the ending result is a healing that the family so desperately needed.
I don't want to say any more.
The acting is exquisite across the board. Catherine Deneuve is, as usual, the personification of grace. The way she balances Junon's disappointment with her maternal responsibilities is beautifully rendered. You never doubt her love for her children, even when she is at her chilliest. Jean-Paul Roussillon is also wonderful, matching Deneuve's endearing qualities with his own paternal glow. Mathieu Amalric is brilliant here, building so many layers and delivering a haunting portrayal of a young man abandoned and lost to his own memories of his own failings. The way he wastes away before his family, casually layering his self-loathing with outbursts of disrespect and aggression is marvelously handled. A lesser actor could have slipped into clichés, but Amalric makes each action feel wholly real. Chiara Mastroianni and Emmanuelle Devos are stunning creatures, and they create two very different women who circle the outskirts of this family.
A visual feast that is as deep as a well and as compelling as they come, this `Christmas Tale' isn't all roses, but it's thorns give it a poignancy that is not seen in many films `trying' to do what `A Christmas Tale' does with ease.
And why is it that the French are the only ones who understand how to use narration in a way that really serves the film's best interest?
It's a visual encounter of lyrical dimensions. And in typical French fashion, its romantic and heartbreaking, yet unsentimental. Admitting my bias for Holiday films, and their ability display family dysfunction not disposed to constructive resolution, this is a film that goes beyond the neurosis and reveals something surprising--plain old good will in some seemingly irredeemable people. Our families often mess us up, but they also have the power to help us heal and bloom from, despite, and because of their influences. This film recognizes that, and makes not excuses for it. This film is on my top 25 films list.