The initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.
The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.
And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.
Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.
But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.
Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.
There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.
Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.
The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.
Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?
It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.
But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.