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A Christmas Tale


By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/10/2008

Director Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale contains all the dysfunctional holiday trappings audiences have come to expect from seasonal dramedy fare: the illness of a family matriarch brings an entire family together for the holidays, including the banished bad boy brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric), whom the eldest sister, playwright Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), cast off from family functions, even though their father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) still keep in touch with him. They and their families--Elizabeth's emotionally fragile son Paul (Emile Berling) and husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), Ivan's wife Sylvia and their two sons Basile (Thomas Obled) and Baptiste (Clément Obled); family cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), and Henri's lover Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos)--pile into their parents' cosy home for a few days of outburst and wine-fueled bad behavior, digging up the past to explain the present, and using words as steely weapons.

What sets this way, way apart from the usual Christmas story is that it's set in a gorgeously old Roubaix home and the family matriarch is Catherine Deneuve, but what elevates it from the solipsistic and offensive norm is how finely drawn co-writers Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu (as in, French intellectual Pierre's son) have made this family and how cinematically playful Desplechin lets their fights, dinners, intimacies, and heartfelt asides come to life onscreen. A Christmas Tale is more extremely Gallic John Cheever short story than holiday movie, where the worst things a sibling can say to another are conveyed in a letter's almost musical prose, a father counsels his daughter's malaise by reading her a passage about desire from a well-thumbed philosophical tome, the red wine and champagne flows freely as the kids put on a holiday play, and, well, the mother stoically contemplating her cancer is Catherine Deneuve. Obviously, this family isn't normal.

And the movie knows it. Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's daughter with Marcello Mastroianni) points this out to Ivan in one of many scenes of casual, intimate intelligence, when she reminds her husband that their family--with its kids who all read music, with the long shadow of their parents' first-born son who died young, with its big house and its built-in rhythms and stories--isn't typical at all. And neither is the movie's story, which sets up so many hokey scenarios only to dance by them with brio and aplomb. The movie runs 150 minutes that you don't feel at all, so brisk and inventive its structure and characters. And it concludes upbeat, but not in the tidy reconciliations of familial love and harmony, instead opting for the more effusive joy of yet another elusive narrative twist.

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