Nearing the Christmas holiday, family matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) learns she suffers from a rare cancer that requires an urgent bone marrow transfusion. The terrifying illness prompts a reunion with her four children over the titular holiday, and, soon, Junon’s home — which she shares with her much older husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) who, judging by his high-riding pants and suspenders, still thinks it’s 1933 — is inundated with family members, bearing gifts and baggage, emotional and otherwise.
Turns out, only two members of her family are blood matches and, hence, potential donors for Junon — her eldest son, Henri (Mattheu Amalric), a troubled, failed entrepreneur with whom she has a strained relationship, and Paull (Emile Berling), the mentally disturbed son of Henri’s uptight, domineering older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). It doesn’t help that Henri is the black sheep of the family, and that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with him.
Junon and Abel’s younger son, Ivan, is there too with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and Ivan’s painter-cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). A weird triangular psycho-sexual dynamic is at play among them, as Sylvia, it seems, harbors both a grudge and an attraction towards Simon that dates back to their more youthful days.
The major drawback, one that constantly distances us from the emotions at the heart of the material, is one of excess. Director Arnaud Desplechin is an adroit and talented craftsman; A Christmas Tale manages to keep us hooked largely on account of its generous style, mashing together classical and modern techniques, shifting gears and moods deftly according to whatever the scene calls for.
Yet you could throw all the style you want into a story and not come up with a decent film if the screenplay is not up to task. And with A Christmas Tale, Desplechin and co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu try to stuff at at least four films into one — as the above description suggests. As the director, Desplechin seems determined to tell all of them, and, in the process, he does right by not a single one. A Christmas Tale is an endlessly busy and stylish film with a hollow emotional and spiritual core.
Everyone here has some beef with someone in this movie, but everyone in this famoily, it seems, is given to saying or doing ludicrous things. What they say or do may vex and puzzle us, yet Desplechin never unravels these moments, and what they might really mean for his characters and, as a result, for his audience. How are we to respond when, after Simon and Sylvia have slept together, she greets her smiling children with unfazed candor and her husband, Ivan, reacts to the infidelity with a bemused smirk? It’s one of the year’s most exasperating movie moments, because Desplechin’s filmmaking keeps us compulsively at a distance, never searching these moments for their implications, and this lack of curiosity on his part keeps us from sympathizing with characters whose only perceptible quality is self-absorption.
A Christmas Tale exists along its surfaces. It keeps itself preoccupied with the frenetic energy of its style and its characters’ simmering interplay, but Desplechin never succeeds in plumbing deeper. It’s a shame because Deneuve is excellent (as always) and one senses real potential in the storyline depicting her tense bond with the estranged Henri, a volatile failure of a man yet possibly her sole hope for survival.
With a richer and bolder screenplay, one that pared itself down to just one or two of the family’s key struggles, and more heartfelt direction, less devoted to style and more on human beings, we might’ve had a rich and involving family saga. As is, Desplechin’s film is just as dysfunctional as the family he depicts. And the only one who suffers in that scenario is the audience.
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupoud, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto
Runtime: 150 min.