December 10, 2009

A Christmas Tale

Reviewer: Dylan de Thomas
Rating (out of 5): ****

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale opens with the death of a child, but there's actually a reason for it beyond cheap audience manipulation. In fact, the child's death - which is depicted with shadow puppets - is eulogized in a profoundly joyful way by the boy's father (played pitch-perfectly by Jean-Paul Roussillon). In a tribute with language borrowed from the poet Emerson, he sees his son's death as the well from which the rest of his own life is to spring. It's surprising and complicated and, at risk of sounding bathetic, puts a smile on your face at the same time as putting a tear in your eye.

Which is the raison d'être for the genre Desplechin is mining and attempting to reinvent - the Holiday Reunion film (as seen in recent years in American films: Home for the Holidays, The Family Stone, Pieces of April). In these films, the dysfunctional family is all together under the same roof for the first time in years for the holidays. In the case of A Christmas Tale, the Vuillard family is getting together for Christmas, but also because their beautiful, remote mother (played by the beautifully remote Catherine Deneuve) is dying of a rare cancer.

That illness, along with the return of the not-exactly beloved eldest brother (played with a seething ferment by the brilliant Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), are the twin engines of the narrative that moves from hilarious dinner-table outbursts to hateful recrimination of long-simmering grudges as well as discoveries of long-held unrequited loves, most taking place in a fantastic multi-level flat that is itself a character in the film (the house-as-character trope is touched on in the supplemental disc in this Crterion release, which has a documentary Desplechin made about the sprawling home he grew up in).

To tell the Vuillard's story, Desplechin uses a wide variety of camera devices (melodramatic high camera angles, iris-ins and outs at the beginning and end of scenes) that help serve the viewer by illuminating the characters within the narrative - as well as referencing other films and filmmakers - but never seeming gimmicky or out-of-place.

In interviews, Desplechin says that he is inspired by Truffaut's notion of "four ideas per minute," and his films are indeed densely packed with said ideas--background stories, music and references to film, philosophy and literature. As with Desplechin's last film, the similarly multifaceted (as well as being the best film of 2005) Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale does not reveal all of its secrets and pleasures with one viewing, instead demanding and rewarding multiple viewings. Spend some time with Vuillards and you're bound to want to come back - just like your own family, right?

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Posted by cphillips at December 10, 2009 11:35 AM
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