Nothing in A Christmas Tale is so bold and funny as its title, a decidedly bland arrangement of two words and an indefinite article that suggests that this is a Christmas movie comme les autres. Any such notion gets chucked out of the window in the first half-hour of this dreamy 151-minute family drama, and while it may look like your average family troubles melodrama on paper, nothing about Arnaud Desplechin could ever make an average movie.
In fact, if I look to some prior reference as a base of comparison, I would have to bypass all the saccharine holiday flicks and go straight to two clear antecedents: Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Fanny and Alexander exerted at least an indirect influence on Desplechin's prior Kings and Queen, what with its usage of ghosts to flesh out a family crisis and existential doubt, but the entire structure of Bergman's most personal opus informs A Christmas Tale, albeit tinged heavily with Anderson's deadpan sense of the dysfunctional elite.
As with the characters in both Anderson and Bergman's films, the Vuillard family is wealthy (though not nearly to the extent of the Tenenbaums or the Ekdahls), highly-educated and aloof. Desplechin opens with a shadow puppet play recounting the family's history, of a couple, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve, in one of her finest roles), who had a son and a daughter. The boy, Joseph, developed a rare disorder, contracted leukemia and died, leaving behind his sister, Elizabeth, as the eldest child to two younger brothers, Henri and Ivan.
We then see the two dominant members of the family in the flesh separately: Junon, who collapses in her home, and Elizabeth, who expresses her inchoate rage and misery to her husband. Desplechin flashes back six years to gather all the family in one place: a courtroom. The middle child, Henri (Mathieu Amalric, proving once again that no one can play a drunken sophisticate quite like him), has gone bankrupt, and Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, who co-starred with Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) agrees to help bail him out, on the condition that he never contact her again. We don't know why she hates him so, but a desperate Henri agrees, only to find himself shunned by the rest of the family.
Six years later, whatever animosity exists between the two siblings is but one thread in the tapestry of dysfunction: to regale you with but a fraction of feuds, secrets and pettiness besetting the Vuillard family would waste words and would have no effect on those who have not seen the film, as a mere list of names and grievances carries with it no impact. It would also place in your minds a pre-conception of the nature of the film, likely leading to a conclusion that A Christmas Tale is a film of family hijinks and loud yelling and terribly pedestrian comedy as we Americans have come to expect from holiday entertainment. But Desplechin wrings laughs from the darker moments and gives severity and depth to the lighter ones.
It's important, however, to know that Junon collapsed at the start because she suffers from the same blood disease that took her first son's life. She's a practical realist who knows how slim the odds are, yet she clearly feels something under her resignation, as she invites the entire family for Christmas, something she clearly hasn't done since they splintered six years ago. But does she invite them because she wants to see her family back together or if she just wants to comb her progeny for a possible match for her rare blood phenotype in order to receive a marrow transplant. All signs point to the latter, as everyone shows up to Abel and Junon's house with blood test results.
Desplechin loves to point out the artifice of his films: A Christmas Tale opens with that puppet show, it employs irises to highlight action and introduce characters, inserts titled chapters and features numerous scenes of characters speaking directly to the camera. There is even a moment of Henri reading a critical letter he sent to his sister that openly recalls the note left by the dead father in Kings and Queen. Yet the self-reflexivity has the opposite effect of the Brechtian alienation effect Godard so dearly loved, drawing us in closer with its trickery. The soliloquies to the camera have the effect of generating intimacy, as if they are confiding in us, yet these scenes do not stick out as theatrical because these characters are so brutally honest with each other.
Take one of the best scenes of the film, in which Henri and Junon smoke out in the snow-covered backyard. They flatly describe how they don't love each other, discussing their distaste without boring us with a list of past moments that would have no connection to the audience. Yet there is affection in their voices, as if they've become so used to sniping each other that a true love exists under their harshness. Junon later takes Henri's girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, playing a wry, schadenfreude-prone version of Erland Josephson's Jewish observer Isak in Fanny) shopping and mentions that she hates Ivan's wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's actual daughter) for taking away the child she loves and expresses approval for Faunia for taking the one she doesn't.
That sort of straight-faced contempt fuels much of the film's dark humor; Henri shows Faunia photos of his dead wife, who died in a car accident, and his girlfriend responds, "She was pretty." "Lousy driver," Henri responds, without missing a beat. Desplechin never plays up the penchant for any one of its tangled plots to lead into cloying self-pity and cheap emotional manipulation, admitting that, yes, sometimes families suck, but you've just got to laugh and keep on living.
Like Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale is lengthy, but it never loses momentum. Desplechin structures a largely plotless airing of grievances with precision: he presents the psychological issues of Elizabeth's troubled son Paul almost like the trailer for a thriller, with quick fades to black punctuated by bursts of action. His hand-held shots are at times distinguishable from more formal shooting only by the extremity of their angles. He does not have his colleague Assayas' smoothness with the camera, but Desplechin somehow gives verisimilitude to his arty technique. Like Scorsese, he's so adept at combining style with substance that his most self-indulgent moments are inseparable from the content of the film.
I found myself moved by the ending, which is weird because I'm not entirely sure what the hell happened. Like the rest of A Christmas Tale, it's both dark and warm-hearted, not given to easy explanations and capable of finding humor, pathos and redemption in anything. Perhaps the key to unlocking the film lies near its midpoint, as Elizabeth receives a golden heart charm from a family friend, and Desplechin zooms in on it as the screen fades to a shot of the Vuillard home's exterior. It may be somewhat hollow and coated in materialistic sheen, but this family has a heart, and without it Desplechin couldn't have made one of the most strikingly original entries into one of the most overplayed genres in film.