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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48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Jazzy French FilmOct. 18 2009
Eric M. Eiserloh
- Published on Amazon.com
This one is not for everyone. Most people will probably not only have trouble with its length, but its style, as well. Both as wild as it is imaginative, Christmas Tale is like a post-modern jazz score, mixing elements from a variety of cinematic styles that are jarring (at times), but always interesting to behold. As long as the film is, it always keeps moving and changing before our very eyes. What makes its odd stylistic combinations work is the compelling depths of its explorations into family and the bonds the unite, or divide us. Like and The Royal Tennenbaums, with a nouvelle vague twist, the film is not only full of odd combinations of image and music, but seems to jump from one film to another from scene to scene, as if each character or emotional quality (from light comedy to serious drama) were each receiving its own rendering. At times, the characters turn and speak directly to the camera. The filmmaker also intercedes by providing chapter headings and keyhole views, but, somehow, what could have become a cacophony of chaos, turns into a wonderment of cinema that any real cinephile will be amazed to behold and want to experience again....
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Extraordinary, mult-layered filmNov. 5 2009
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French director Arnaud Desplechin's film works as one of the best mult-layered movies of the genre, which in many respects takes its conventions and turns them on their head. Not your feel good, holiday coming home movie but one which inverts and mischievously perverts viewer expectations and instead dares to substitute real people for the usual suspects. The first rate acting (the legendary Catherine Deneuve and the not as well known but no less talented Desplechin actors Mathieu Almaric and Emmanuelle Devos) takes a conventional genre situation - mother (Denueve) suffers from cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant - and explores the generational conflicts that afflict this family and provocatively and evocatively deals with the issues of mother love; forgiveness; sibling rivalry; grief for thwarted dreams and life changing losses, and even fidelity itself. For film lovers who enjoy characters in unconventional situations, this film will continue to reward upon future viewings. Those requiring conventional Hollywood plotting and endings should probably look elsewhere. I would add that the director is one of the best working today. One of the best films of 2008.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
A Winter Night's DreamDec 2 2009
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[4.5 stars] It may be a mistake to call this a "dysfunctional family Christmas movie." The individuals of the Vuillard family have, in fact, all submitted themselves to the precise roles that will allow the family to function. And that is the real problem. Each has to contort himself, at times almost beyond human recognition, in order for things to make a certain sort of sense. There is distance in how they address each other: no "maman", no "papa", just first names all around. The system that allows this family to function even includes "Anatole," an imaginary wolf that lives in the basement. It is a well-honed system.
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A tale beautifully told...July 2 2012
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While watching this marvelous film, I didn't expect it would divide people the way that it has. In my eyes, there wasn't anything to dislike. In fact, I was so absorbed and so taken by what I was seeing that it quickly shot to the top of my personal ballot for the year of 2008 and, in reflection, I think it may be one of the very best films of the last decade. Coming to the site to post a review and I was floored to see the negative responses by so many (I say `so many' knowing that that is only appropriated to the lack of reviews, since there are only a total of 19, including my own). Yes, for every person saying that this is five star worthy (which it is) there are two saying that it is not.
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?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Holiday SpunSept. 23 2011
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This film is always entertaining and inventive, though its pacing does provide a few pauses in action to let you check in with yourself about what you've just seen. The variety of creative devices put successfully into play in here hint at genius (Literature, Music: Classical, Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Art & Animation). The acting performances are natural and the characters heartbreaking. Their flaws are at once towering and human. I'm a student of film and believe in its potential to teach us something of who we are as we bump into each other in this life. This one teaches from start to finish in some unexpected ways.
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.