A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

The large family house still stands, where once lived two parents, two sons and a daughter (now grown with children of their own), and one best friend who often visited. They’re all somewhat miserable now, especially the daughter, a playwright who never smiles. The family reconvenes for the first time in years (after one had been banished for a time) in the big house because of a life-threatening illness. Old problems re-emerge, along with some new ones, and there’s a secret love affair involving the best friend. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, here’s the acclaimed new holiday picture from the director of the even-more-acclaimed Kings and Queen.

An IMDB review of K&Q calls Arnaud’s earlier 1996 drama “a rambling, shambling, thoroughly engaging 3 hour trip through the lives of a group of rambling, shambling, lost characters, made by a director looking to pour as much raw life into a film as possible and let the rest sort itself out. He has no interest in a well-knit story.” The same goes for this one, much to Katy’s frustration. This is roughly the same kind of movie as Happy Go Lucky, but instead of following the quirky life of one main character for two hours, we’ve got ten main characters for two and a half, so obviously we come away with less depth from anyone here than we did with Poppy in H-G-L – another Katy complaint. I liked the movie a fair bit. It’s an engrossing family sketch with great performances and no big scripted moments, fake-sounding climactic speeches or tidy resolutions, and the filmmaking was spot-on, tracking skillfully between a hundred different people and events (and featuring a hundred different music styles), cutting quickly without every becoming wearying or losing the threads of things. But then again, the Traumatic Family Drama isn’t really my bag, and while I’d happily watch this again over Rachel Getting Married (our last big family trauma film similarly featuring lots of shaky-cam cinematography), I’d even more happily forget both of ’em and sit through another show of Happy-Go-Lucky (or, ahem, The Royal Tenenbaums).

Junon (Catherine Deneuve, last seen in A Talking Picture) is sick (not visibly), needs marrow transplant. Her jolly, supportive husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon of Same Old Song) rigorously calculates her chances of survival. Hot-tempered middle child Henri (star Jean-Do in Diving Bell and the Butterfly), eventual marrow donor, bounces around with his new girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, star of La Moustache and Read My Lips) joking around and getting people upset at him. Tormented oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, Jean-Do’s dictation assistant in Diving Bell) tries to protect her schizophrenic, suicidal teen son Paul, usually without the help of her husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot, intrusive downstairs neighbor in Flight of the Red Balloon). Meek youngest child Ivan (filmmaker and regular Raoul Ruiz actor Melvil Poupaud) hangs out with wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni of Love Songs and Ready To Wear, daughter of C. Deneuve and Marcello M.) and their two kids, and best friend/cousin/painter Simon.

Whew. So having introduced the characters, here’s where I lay out their story arcs and intersections, but I can’t think of a whole lot of those. There’s some to-do about Paul, a potential marrow donor, and whether his mental state is up for it. Junon and Faunia go shopping. Sylvia sleeps with Simon, in one of the only forward plot developments.

Easier to list are things the movie brings up which are not fully explored (or only barely). The childhood death of a sibling (who also needed a marrow transplant). Why Liz went from tolerating her brother Henri to hating him. Ivan’s reaction to catching his wife in bed with his cousin. And so on… but maybe it’s all comprehensible in hindsight, removed from the kinetic hustle of the movie. Take Henri’s Jewish girlfriend Faunia: a veiled attack on his possibly antisemitic mother, with whom he’s had a bitter history, plus, as an outsider who has never met the family, a window for the audience into the family home, someone for whom old family frictions can be described without the movie having to resort to narration (although it does – main characters talk to the camera), her outsider nature reinforced by her Jewishness on Christmas eve (she goes home before the day). Hmmm, that actually wasn’t so hard.

Shot by Eric Gautier, an impressive Assayas and Resnais D.P. who also did Into The Wild and Gabrielle. References include Shakespeare, Emerson, Funny Face, The Ten Commandments, The New World, and Angela Bassett’s ass.

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