In their restraint, the actors convey strength
The real beauty of “A Christmas Tale” is that it picks us up – gently at first – and drops us into another culture that is familiar but also vastly, proudly, different from our own. This fine French film is the story of a family reunited at Christmas time by a cancer diagnosis newly received by the family matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve). Whatever structure the director – and co-writer - Arnaud Desplechin has given his tale, it is shattered into marvelous, uncontrollable pieces by the eccentric members of the Vuillard family. Don’t worry about sorting them out; it’s the mosaic that matters.
You could watch this film on mute and still know it is French. Their expressions contain a weary stoicism as well as a sophisticated acceptance of life’s roadblocks. No one is happy, but since no one seems to feel entitled to happiness, we don’t suffer for them. Junon’s husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) comments quietly, “This is not a tragedy,” and his wife replies, “I know.”
Junon is mother of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), of Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), and of Henri (Mathieu Amalric). Both Henri and Junon’s grandson Paul (Emile Berling) are considered by general agreement to be unstable, an irony when they turn out to be the only compatible donors of the bone marrow that Junon must have.
Ailments, both physical and emotional, abound. From Simon, (Laurent Capelluto), a confession that he must make love to his cousin’s amenable wife in the family house. From Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), “Why am I always sad? What did I lose?” And from Junon herself, a simple statement that she doesn’t like her son. Cruel statements are delivered calmly, and recriminations do not follow.
Both the house and the emotions are dark; everyone smokes the old-fashioned way, one after another, even the doctors. This is a family reunited in the most untenable way. There is no possibility they can remain in this house beyond this Christmas. The Vuillard family knows neither themselves nor each other; but instead of the British/American forbearance, instead of pretense that nothing is wrong, they discuss each other as if the subject isn’t even in the room. This is a family gently fueled by alcohol, cigarettes, and books. They turn to Shakespeare and Nietzsche to explain themselves to each other.
In their restraint, the actors convey strength. The dual presence hovering over them all is that of Abel and Junon. Jean-Paul Roussillon’s Abel may be old and quite bent, but of all of them, he has mastered the long view of life; he chooses a position in the background, but his perspective is born of a life with his books and music. Catherine Deneuve, her presence still riveting, speaks Junon’s lines in phrases with sharpened edges. In characteristic response to her daughter-in-law who asks, “You like me. Why?” she replies, “Because you took the one I didn’t like.0 Take that. And take the rest of this marvelous submersion in the jumbled emotions of an extended French family
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