Good Will Toward Men
by Michael Koresky
A Christmas Tale
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin, France, IFC Films
Everything’s at the threshold in A Christmas Tale. Holiday time, transition, reunion, naturally, but also disease and surgery, grudge and reconciliation, degeneration and regeneration. It’s all come to a head, and Arnaud Desplechin’s certainly proven himself in recent years the director to handle such an overflow—of information and joy and panic. Of course this isn’t The Family Stone territory: added to this heady stew is a surfeit of Desplechin’s jingle-jangles—jazz segueing to hip-hop and classical music; Funny Face and The Ten Commandments; personal letters read aloud directly to the camera; superimpositions and dissolving collages; decidedly French political incorrectness and vulgarities; intimations of noir, of melodrama, of mystery. In other words, this is Desplechin’s Christmas family album, and you’re free to exit through the front door if you’re not feeling the spirit.
The proper words to describe A Christmas Tale’s tone—regardless of its inability, or perhaps unwillingness to stick with just one for more than five minutes at a time—might be grim elation. And what better way to represent the holidays than with such conflicted emotions? That sense of excitement leading up to family gatherings is usually tempered, if not nullified, by the slight disappointment of the event itself. Our greatest works of secular Christmas art, from Dickens’s ghost stories to Norman Rockwell’s tattered illustrations, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Fanny and Alexander to Eyes Wide Shut, ground the merriment of the season in unwelcome reminders of mortality. A time of transition, Christmas is also a time of haunting: the specter of death hangs over even the most fleeting moment of laughter and love. The year is over; people have died, people will die, and we’re all one step closer to the end. Carols, hymns, and feasts devote themselves to birth and renewal, but snow, long nights, and the closing of the year speak to decay. Desplechin’s film, appropriately, begins at a gravesite, years earlier than the narrative proper and the entire film is informed by this funereal moment: Abel (Jean-Pierre Roussillon) speaking of the loss of his six-year-old son, Joseph, to lymphoma.
Though he’s not as sanctimonious a moralizer, Joseph might be this story’s Jacob Marley. He’s dead, to begin with, and without his death, nothing wondrous would come of the events to follow. A Christmas Tale isn’t outwardly supernatural, but there are minor miracles therein. Right away, we’re soon distracted by narrational flourish: cluttered interiors and photographs in piles and shadow puppets detailing a wealth of backstory. Joseph died because he was unable to get the blood marrow transfusion he needed, and now, many years later, a similar potential tragedy has arisen. The late child’s mother, and craggy, rotund Abel’s noticeably younger, more glamorous wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), now in her sixties, is also stricken with cancer and needs to find the matching blood-type for her own marrow transfusion. And soon we’re leafing, no, whipping, through something like a visual diary, meeting those children who came after the long-lost eldest: Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a playwright, bitter and eternally angry at her younger brother, black sheep Henri (Mathieu Amalric), born immediately after Joseph’s death and immeasurably inferior; lucky number four is Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), good-natured to a fault, almost irresponsibly good-looking, married and successful but perhaps lost in the shuffle of his sibling’s resentments and fecklessness.
Naturally, all of them reunite for Christmas, even Henri, who had been all but ex-communicated by Elizabeth five years earlier and only returns because of the gravity of Junon’s situation. Also, his blood type is the perfect match for his mother. Further complicating the crisscrossing bonds of good and bad blood, Elizabeth’s son, the literately named Paul Dédalus (Emile Berling), a troubled teen whose dark-eyed handsomeness hides a bit of the devil (he’s already been in and out of an institution for erratic behavior, including threateningly using a knife), is also a positive match. This exacerbates the push-pull of resentment between Henri and Elizabeth, whose outrage at her brother seems both methodical and outsized, although Desplechin purposely leaves out a lot of motivation here; Elizabeth, who comes across as dour and single-minded next to Henri’s charismatic erraticism, seems almost irrationally angry at her brother, but she nevertheless is not demonized. Consigny is especially sympathetic in scenes with Berling, and even proves to have a surprising sense of humor later on when Henri toasts to her at the dinner table as the “Cunt Capitaine.” Furthermore, Elizabeth’s initial decree of separation from her brother came after a moment of ironic generosity: by paying off his debts, she both washes her hands of him and saves her parents from financial responsibility. Yet Elizabeth’s endeavors to rid herself of her brother prove futile: family remains, it’s folly to deny its madness.
Also, rudely plunked down in the midst of the clamor at Junon and Abel’s bustling three-story townhouse in Roubaix are significant others, children, friends, and new sexual acquaintances. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), is itching for fisticuffs with Henri. Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, bearing a sly and sexy openheartedness), has a sensible, loving relationship with her husband that is tested by her attraction to childhood friend Simon (Laurent Capelluto), a cousin of Ivan's, also home for the holidays. And the most mysterious visitor is Henri’s bemused new squeeze, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, a welcome Desplechin fixture), non-neurotic, Jewish, ethereal, and entirely out of place. The filmmaker, always frank and funny, even, or especially, when inappropriate, gives us a lot to take in, and each of his characters at times seems like they were airlifted in from another movie entirely. If they don’t always feel like “real” members of a family, they also never function as mere constructs putting forth some vague idea of what Family is supposed to mean. A Christmas Tale is attuned not to the minutiae of household upkeep or generational interaction, but rather concerned with how our lives often revolve around capital-e Events and are defined by grandiose gestures, made either in jest or earnest. It’s the kind of film that shows no shame in having a character’s introductory lines of dialogue be “I’m sterile. I’m unhappy. Angry.”
Anger gives way to joy and vice versa. Scenes that should be mired in gloom (Junon telling Abel about her illness; Henri and Junon attending a midnight mass) are traced with a feather-light touch; others that seem to be courting humor (opposites Junon and Faunia go mall-shopping; various kitchen-table confrontations) are related with sobriety. There’s an odd magic to this film, one that’s relatable in its vibrancy, but also one that perhaps only Desplechin can completely understand and define. It’s hard to tell which, if any, of A Christmas Tale’s characters most reflects the point of view of its auteur. Is it Abel, with his “that’s life” bewilderment, and who recites one of the film’s overarching poetic themes—“We, seekers of knowledge, remain unknown to ourselves. With good reason, we have never sought ourselves”—with gravity? Ivan, whose devil-may-care, family-man centeredness is seemingly unperturbed by any outside force? Elizabeth, whose self-righteous pragmatism has created an impenetrable wall around her? Henri, whose life seems like one long scattershot diatribe, not unlike the film he stars in but which he’s unable to properly anchor? Though he’s probably made up of fragments of all of them, my guess is that it’s Deneuve’s Junon who comes closest to embodying the filmmaker’s sensibility. Her every move is burdened with self-awareness, and though she’s often given to fits of unpredictable behavior (leaving Faunia alone in a department-store dressing room and going home; furtively sharing cigarettes with Henri on the backyard swing; teasing him with the nickname “My little Jew” with unblinking, sweet-voiced anti-Semitism), she grounds the family by refusing to take sides in internal squabbles. The role’s a gift, tailor-made for latter-day Deneuve’s brand of wise dispassion, and the actress repays the favor with a splendid, layered performance, her best in years. With the slightest purse of the lips or rattled sidelong glance of disappointment, Deneuve lovingly shades a woman taking stock of her life at a critical moment; the actress’s severity has grown intimidatingly maternal.
Above all, Junon is still, and will remain until her passing, a mourning mother, something the actress and filmmaker do not underline but which remains implicit throughout this crazy quilt of a movie. A Christmas Tale is unapologetic about its lack of concern with class or religion; it’s more universally about how within a family an untimely death leaves splinters and shards strewn throughout all that comes after. It’s a film about blood, which normally just roils beneath the surface, but which sometimes needs to be spilled to keep us united (early on, there’s an unflinching, visceral image of a doctor extracting blood from a hole in Junon’s neck, and it’s horrible and liberating). Like P.T. Anderson in Magnolia, Desplechin even gets microscopic, zooming way in on devouring cancer cells—in fact, the Anderson comparison might be a generally apt one in terms of tone, pace, and flourish; like Magnolia, this film is at once rocket-fueled and beguilingly intimate.
Watching the spirited and melancholy A Christmas Tale is like listening to the somber transcendence of “Silent Night” (with a dash of Vince Guaraldi). Even those minor threads and beats that don’t cohere or convince (Paul’s too Tiger Beat pretty and emotionally savvy to come off as dangerously troubled; Sylvia’s frank decision to throw caution to the wind for her self-proclaimed “ugly lover” seems like a silly, too unhesitant afterthought; and it’s hard to rationalize the sore-thumb blatant visual and musical references to Vertigo and the borrowed mysticism from Fanny and Alexander) at least function well rhythmically—like little riffs in Desplechin’s overall freeform creation. Imminent tragedy and bumbling slapstick buffer each other, cynicism and poetic optimism (typified by a lovely closing shot and recitation from Elizabeth) exist side by side, cradled in harmony, all through the night. It’s Christmas, and families are on the mend; people are on the verge of some greater understanding of themselves and each other. At least until New Year’s.