All of the major news outlets reliably trot out their lists of enjoyable Christmas movies, singing the praises of the likes of ‘White Christmas’ (hard to believe Rosemary Clooney was so seldom used in films), ‘The Bishop’s Wife’, ‘Love, Actually’, ‘Christmas In Connecticut’, and ‘Holiday Affair’ (Mitchum and Janet Leigh, one of my personal favorites), as well as the heralded standards that blanket cable TV this time of year.
But sure to become one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies is a dense and involving film by the talented French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin. A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) (2008), is a wonderfully contradictory examination of the Vuillard family, who have come together at the family home in Roubaix, France. Christmas, of course, is the overt occasion for the gathering. But infusing the family dynamics are the deeper, and often glossed-over, qualities that Christmas is really about: loyalty, charity, self-sacrifice, grace, generosity, humility and unconditional love.
The film opens in the past (roughly 1970), with an elegy delivered by Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon) for his eldest son, Joseph, who has died at age five of lymphoma. “I looked inside myself and I felt no grief. Suffering is a painted backdrop. Tears bring me no nearer to the world…Joseph is now my founder. This loss is my foundation. Joseph has made of me his son, and I feel boundless joy.” The symbolism of reverence for the long-dead son, at Christmastime, in the present, is subtly placed, but it’s a crucial element to the lives, and subsequent moral choices, of the other family members.
Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is the eldest sibling, married to her husband Claude and mother to Paul. She’s a successful playwright whose younger brother, Henri, bought a theater to produce her plays. But Henri (Mathieu Almaric), characteristically, drove the theater into massive debt with his dilettante profligacy and neglect. Exhausted with her brother’s irresponsibility and manipulative arrogance, Elizabeth announces in court that she will cover Henri’s debts, but he must exile himself from her life forever, never having contact with her immediate family, never appearing at family events that she will be a part of, never insinuating himself into any part of her life thereafter.
Elizabeth and Claude’s teenage son, Paul, is isolated and seemingly friendless, and starting to act out in potentially destructive ways. He’s increasingly depressed and discouraged by his need for medical and psychiatric help. But his uncle, the generously avuncular Ivan Vuillard (Elizabeth’s youngest sibling), had similar issues in his young life, and he reassures his nephew that his present sadness and confusion can be transcended.
Catherine Deneuve is Junon Vuillard, Abel’s wife, and matron of the family. She has recently taken sick, as it turns out, with the same lymphoma that took the life of her child. The immediate family members all test themselves for bone-marrow compatibility, and the details of Junon’s procedure will be worked out at Christmas.
So, a few days before, the participants of the traditional gathering coalesce: Elizabeth arrives with her husband, Claude, and their troubled son Paul; Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) arrives with his charming wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and their two sons; and they are joined by beloved artist-cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). And, despite the court agreement, the black-sheep Henri presents himself with his girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) – eventually we learn that Henri is one of the two family members who are compatible for Junon’s bone-marrow transplant, which necessitates his presence.
Desplechin uses a well-chosen variety of techniques to present the Vuillards’ world. Sprinkled within the realistic, straightforward visual narrative are stylistic flourishes that unswervingly serve the characters and events. Characters address the camera directly at times; particular transitions use irised cuts, the old-fashioned circular blackouts and entries from silent films; Grègoire Hetzel’s original music is unobtrusively evocative, but he collaborates with Desplechin to insert little pockets of angular jazz throughout to augment particular scenes and moments (Abel’s appreciative listening of modern and free-jazz piano punctuates the reunion throughout; Duke Ellington’s ‘Ad Lib on Nippon’ is particularly well-placed).
And Desplechin is adept at using the traits and eccentricities of his characters in rhythmic counterpoint as well. Particular scenes reveal surprising alliances and antagonisms. Junon and Faunia, on an impromptu shopping spree, are effortlessly frank with each other, despite this being each other’s first encounter. Elizabeth’s spiteful banishment of Henri turns out to have disrupted her own well-being far more than her irascible brother’s. Henri’s self-indulgent baiting is met with indignation, concern or ambivalence, but who reacts how is always surprising. Sylvia and Simon share a couple of amazing scenes together; one silent and ineffably delicate, accompanied by a harpsichord.
Mythical signifiers are surreptitiously placed for us, safely ignored or enriching in contemplation – the Shakespearean conceits of parents relying on the affections of the offspring for validation, or, indeed, life; the loving or internecine interplay between siblings; the banishment of the brother/son; Abel’s Austen-like paternal anchorage; feral talismans imagined by children; the preternaturally wise outsider (one of the most beautifully iconic images in the film is Faunia smoking, alone, in a department store stairwell); the ubiquitous presence of the dead son, and his carcinomic visitation upon his mother.
But don’t mistake the complexity of the narrative for humorlessness – there are ample laughs, and infectious joy, in the portrait of the family overall. Even, arguably, the most humorless sibling, Elizabeth, turns out to be the person who concludes the film on a note of Shakespearean aspirational assurance: “If we shadows have offended, think but this: all you have done is to sleep. And everything will be mended.”
‘A Christmas Tale’ is profoundly enriching in all of the best possible ways. Like Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, or Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’, it presents the archetypical realities and problems of Family, while reassuring us that its tangents, offshoots and outright conflicts are inevitably smaller than the love and loyalty that can be it’s foundation, if we choose it so. I can’t think of a better message to get from a holiday film.