A Christmas Tale opens Friday throughout the Triangle
I'm in awe of A Christmas Tale, but I don't want to stand in silence, marveling over it; I want to break wine bottles and hoist strangers on my shoulders to celebrate it.
Director Arnaud Desplechin's raucous style rejects the idea of awe—one imagines that complacent consideration is anathema to him. Simultaneously, his precise grip on character, love, language, the cinema—in a word, emotion—belies a studiousness that hasn't gathered the dust of bookishness. Desplechin has made a thorough, complex, funny movie, rigorous in its emotional content, perhaps exhausting, definitely exuberant. It is not only the best movie I've seen this year—it embodies what narrative movies could and should be.
At the risk of overselling A Christmas Tale, I have trouble believing anyone could deny that this is an overwhelming experience—yes, there were two couples that walked out at the screening I attended, but surely this was because it only took the first half of the film to convince them to leave the theater to go reconnect with their own families.
The story is familiar; on paper, this is a simple family reunion tale. The Vuillards are an artsy, often eccentric bunch who love to talk, argue and obsess over the contours of their relationships. Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the mother, is stricken with an illness that requires a marrow transplant, which brings three generations together to get tested for compatibility, drink two cellars worth of wine and get reacquainted. The specifics of the complications and tensions are best left unmentioned, but the primary rift is between Junon's son Henri (delirious, dysfunctional Mathieu Amalric) and his sister Elizabeth (frosty beauty Anne Consigny, who played Amalric's nurse in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
An early scene serves as a cross-section of Desplechin's brilliance and a dissection of his concerns: He nests a chaotic courtroom scene as a flashback in an eerily restrained psychotherapy session, delineating the details of the siblings' split and the differences between them with contrasting styles that heighten the emotional impact rather than fracture it. Desplechin's approach is one of collage—he's freewheeling with his handheld camera at times, but also has characters speak directly to a sturdy, dolly-mounted camera, and uses everything from harps to hip-hop on the soundtrack. There's a caution-to-the-wind quality to how he uses all these techniques, but his decisions are always spot-on due to his deep grasp of the content and his love of every character that enters the film.
Desplechin, a virtuoso handler of actors, has tackled his most ambitious clown car of characters since 1996's My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument, but here he has taken more care with the dynamics between characters. In that film, and in most of Desplechin's work, characters bounced off of one another, using each other as sounding boards to voice solipsistic mini-monologues. In A Christmas Tale there is a stronger sense of communication between them. Desplechin pays close attention to the ways these brothers and sisters, rivals and lovers act differently depending on whom they're talking to, and he probes the dynamics between his characters, and his film (and his audience) benefit from the way Desplechin embraces complications. By taking such care and injecting such energy into every relationship in the household, A Christmas Tale obliterates the idea of a background character and, with a camera that seems to pick up everything in the room without ever being vague about its perspective, the movie dismantles the idea of periphery similar to the canvases of another Vuillard, the Post-Impressionist painter Edouard. This film is completely alive.
A big reason that Desplechin has outdone himself is that he's become more generous to his female characters, aided to no small degree by Deneuve, Emmanuelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni. Mastroianni plays Junon's daughter-in-law, and her détente agreement with Junon is not only well-played but made especially enjoyable by watching Deneuve and Mastroianni, a real-life mother-daughter pair, portray the reserved relationship of in-laws (M. Desplechin, write Mme. Mastroianni a star vehicle, s'il vous plait). During a chance meeting away from the Vuillard house, Junon and Henri's girlfriend, Faunia (Devos), match wits and wills, both of them too strong to make room for a friendship even though they like each other. Elizabeth's extreme distaste for her brother Henri is given plenty of play and made completely understandable, while in a lesser movie Henri would be the star of the show and for the sake of closure, Elizabeth would be forced to come around eventually.
Too formal an examination of this emotive piece of filmmaking would be doing it a disservice—one of the things I admire so much about Christmas Tale is its disregard for grounded, rational storytelling. But to call it irreverent would give the impression that this is a schoolboy exercise when it is in fact a mature, sensitive work. Desplechin has the intelligence, energy and compassion to have become anything from a book club darling to a leftist revolutionary. Luckily for the cinema, he fancies filmmaking.