Hot Tickets: Not your average family holiday drama

Catherine Deneuve headlines A Christmas Tale

As a take on the standard “home for the holidays” genre of film comes director and co-writer Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël]. Although the themes of such a film aren’t anything new (happiness and strife, but family love soldiers on), Desplechin’s take on the material is refreshing; an upper-middle class family from the north of France has to face mortality and the uncertainty of the relationships that have been forged and broken apart over the years.

Most of the heavy lifting in the film is handled by a strong ensemble cast; this film isn’t particularly “arty” or terribly meditative, and it shows as each scene drives a spike into the film’s agency. Headlining is Catherine Deneuve (forever ravishing, who previously worked with Desplechin on his 2004 film Kings & Queen [Rois et reine]) plays Junon, the matriarch of the Vuillon family, newly aware of a life-threatening bone disease that will take her life unless she finds a compatible match for bone marrow donation. Her illness, in some ways, is what brings together the family as a whole for the first time in six years. Eldest daughter Elizabeth has estranged herself, and it seems her entire family, from middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric, of last year’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [Le scaphandre et le papillon]); her reasoning for excommunicating him from her life is lacking convincing necessity, though the family doesn’t seem to challenge her desire to keep Henri out of her life and the life of her teenage son, Paul.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. A Christmas Tale is a family soap opera in full-swing, padded on all sides by the off-beat deadpan humor the family seems to be so comfortable in. Not a large family get-together could go by without the airing of some dirty laundry, including patriarch Abel’s obsession with the remaining time his wife has left, a peek into an awkwardly acknowledged extramarital affair, and the growing mental instability of eldest grandchild Paul.

Director Arnaud Desplechin (who I’m told has a reputation for off-kilter films) gives us a Christmas tale that volleys some pretty standard tropes about family holiday movies: estranged siblings, loner grandchildren, sick but brave family elders. Although the pieces don’t seem to be trumpeting anything new, I’d argue that Desplechin deploys them in ways that catch the viewer off-guard. His style could be described as jumpy; scenes are strung together by non-sequitirs, sometimes punctuated by title cards for each “movement” of the film. Some characters have sudden soliloquies that establish background and mood rather than interweaving with the story. In order to balance the soapy interiority of the Vuillon family Christmas atmosphere, Desplechin deploys contrasting settings (the warmth of the Vuillon home, the cold hospitals, the neon darkness of a discotheque in town) to break up the momentum. I think he’s driving for something that appears fragmentary but has more connective tissue than meets the eye…. not unlike how families grow, and how children do return home once again.

Purchase tickets [Sat Oct 11: 11:15am]

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One Comment on “Hot Tickets: Not your average family holiday drama”

  1. […] Reichardt, U.S. 580 2.    Flight of the Red Balloon Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France 564 3.    A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France 557 4.    Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh, U.K.  538 5.    WALL·E […]

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