Un Conte de NoŽl (A Christmas Tale) Reviews
A follow-up of KINGS & QUEEN (2004, 6/10), French art house director Arnaud Desplechin concocts a fine potpourri of familial entanglements around the bourgeois Vuillard family, opens with a consequential animated preamble of the loss of their eldest son Joseph at the age of 6 due to a hereditary blood disease while no compatible marrow transplant is found in both parents, the daughter Elizabeth (Consigny) and the second son Henri (Amalric), who is conceived to offer a cure to his elder brother. But time goes on, a third son Ivan (Poupaud) is born, and now they are all grown-ups, then the matriarch Junon (Denueve) discovers that she suffers from the same disease, the only compatible donors are Henri and Elizabeth's son Paul (Berling), hence this Christmas, a family reunion is endowed with a more grave determinant, especially for the black sheep in the family Henri, after a 6-year banishment (due to an unspecified riff with Elizabeth), his return with his new Jewish girlfriend Faunia (Devos) will undoubtedly thrust the tension with Elizabeth's family and have an impact on Junon's final resolve to her impending treatment.
Screen time is almost equally allotted to the all-star cast with their own stories intermingle in a short span of the timeline, although the main stream focuses on Henri and Junon's reconciliation, but it is not a beatific movie to bury the hatchet and embrace a pristine future, every family has its distinctive script written with plenitude of relatable interactions, notably, the mutual attraction between Ivan's wife Sylvia (played by Chiara Mastroianni, Denueve's real life daughter with Marcello Mastroianni) and Ivan's cousin Simon (Capelluto) clicks wonderfully in the latter part of the film, it is very French as well, for moralistic puritans and prudes, it is a sheer crevice in their convictions which will prompt harsh opprobrium.
One trait of superfluity is the chunk of monologues, colloquies with staccato coherence, loose ends are all over the place, we can never decipher the real motivations and reasons behind certain behaviors which adhere to a particular terrain of mores; also the peephole shots introduces each chapter gives the film a stage structure and the occasional talk-to-the-camera shtick often comes out of nowhere, they may variegate the viewers' recipiency but are inconsistent in the plot development and engender some distractions hinder the appreciation.
Amalric and Mastroianni are my pick among the ensemble, he is a true thespian with utter devotion while she bears her father's resemblance and an arresting existence whenever she is on screen. Devos is enjoyable as an unobtrusive intruder (reminds me to watch an Angela Basset film), Denueve is as distant as always, graceful but stereotyped, Poupaud is too damn good-looking for his shyness and benevolence and Consigny is perpetually frowned and distressed, enclosed in her own little world, one might feel too depressed to invest in her.
In conclusion, it is not your average Christmas flick, but a less chic showpiece about kindred liaisons than Assayas' SUMMER HOURS (2008, 8/10).
In this dark comedy everyone is at the end of someone else's strings.
Arnaud Desplechin directed this idiosyncratic and unorthodox tale about members of a dysfunctional family who come together over the course of 4 days for a strained and animosity-filled Christmas reunion.
Sound depressing? Or at the very least, entertaining in a lowbrow "Jerry Springer" mudfest kind of way?
Well, not to worry, mon ami. On the square, this film is no downer - it is on the contrary quite life-affirming...if you've got your inner tuning fork adjusted to the right frequency. As for being "Jerry Springer"-esque, nothing on that show was ever articulate or erudite, existential or human. This film is all of those things.
At its heart "A Christmas Tale" is a celebration of our contradictions and complexities as human beings, and how they affect the family dynamic.
Much of the film's success and appeal is due to its cast of richly hewn and interestingly developed characters, a self-labeled "bunch of weirdos". The Catherine Deneuve-led ensemble of actors (and I mean, "actors") are all superb, especially (for my money) Jean-Paul Roussillon as Abel, the Vuillard family patriarch; Mathieu Amalric as Henri, the middle Vuillard child, the "black sheep" of the family; and Chiara Mastroianni as Sylvia, the wife of Ivan, the youngest Vuillard child.
The film is paced expertly well and the narrative form is perfectly suited to its subject matter and large group of characters.
Another of the film's many strengths is its lush photography, shot in brilliant colours and soft tones. The Vuillard family home in Roubaix is warm and inviting (Henri even mentions to his girlfriend that "I always thought that this place was so great") - it's full of books and music and the Christmas tree becomes magnificent before our very eyes. It snows prettily outside for almost the entire duration of the get-together. The music on the film's soundtrack sometimes seems out of place, but somehow it all manages to fit anyway. All of these elements are in stark contrast to the drama and turmoil of the family's story being played out in the narrative, creating dichotomies of ugliness versus beauty, sadness versus joy, hatred versus love - just like real, everyday life. Of course, this is all intentional on the part of director Desplechin...and it all works, beautifully.
On a side note, I venture that director Desplechin is fond of Ingmar Bergman as I felt a lot of the Swedish master's influence throughout the proceedings. There's also quite a bit of Shakespeare in this 'tale' - soliloquies into the camera, a deliciously-composed letter, there's even a 'play within the play' as it were.
From the film --
"We, seekers of knowledge, remain unknown to ourselves with good reason: we have never sought ourselves. How should we some day find ourselves? Our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge. Bees always searching, collectors of the honey of the mind, our hearts are set on one thing: bringing something home... As for the rest, as for life with its so-called experiences, who among us takes them seriously? Who has the time? Who hears the clock striking twelve? And, once roused, asks himself: 'What did the clock just strike?' In this way, we rub our ears after the fact and ask ourselves, surprised: 'What have we experienced?' Then we try, after the fact, as I just said, to count back over the twelve strokes of our experience, our life, our being, and lose count in the process. We are unknown to ourselves. We do not understand ourselves. Concerning ourselves, we are not seekers of knowledge."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
"On the Genealogy of Morals"