Hollywood factory-produces predictable stories in which dysfunctional families reunite for some special occasion and have at one another over ancient slights and grievances, before falling into a group hug just in time for the closing credits. For filmgoers fatigued by the formula of these home-for-the-holidays pictures, French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale will prove the most welcome of cinematic gifts.
The movie is a marvel of mixed techniques (incorporating everything from split-screen effects to shadow puppetry), untelegraphed shifts in tone, delightfully barbed dialogue, unsolved mysteries, encrypted cultural references and unmapped psychological terrain — though its most audacious innovation may be the Vuillard family itself. I’ve seen hundreds, I suppose thousands, of movie families, and I’ve yet to encounter one quite like it.
As the film opens, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is burying a 7-year-old son who has died of lymphoma and delivering a eulogy that catches the viewer off guard. “My son is dead,” he says with a smile, “but I feel no grief.” Nothing in the rest of his speech sheds light on his mind-set. It turns out the script’s authors based Abel’s monologue on a diary entry penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the occasion of his son’s death — an intriguing discovery, but, again, one that hardly explains the fellow’s perplexing good spirits.
Fast-forward three or four decades, and the enigmas have only multiplied, as has the Vuillard clan. Abel is a bit of a Renaissance man — a musician, the proprietor of a dye factory in the northern city of Roubaix, a mathematician and a voracious reader. He is older now, but one thing is unchanged. He again faces the prospect of losing a loved one to lymphoma.
This time the stricken family member is his wife, Junon, played eccentrically by Catherine Deneuve. On the one hand she’s an affectionate life mate, a woman devoted to her large and charming old house and, more or less, to the fruit of her loins. On the other hand, she exhibits a serenity concerning her fate that borders on indifference — and she clearly dotes on some of her children more and others less. And by less, I mean she’s perfectly fine with it when her oldest son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the family’s black sheep, is banished for six years.
Within the fictional reunion, Desplechin stages a real reunion between the great Amalric, who starred in last year’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Anne Consigny, who played stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby’s translator. The dynamic between the two has been flipped, to put it mildly. Consigny costars here as Elizabeth, the family’s eldest, an icy, self-absorbed playwright. It is she who saves her reckless brother from jail time following a failed business venture. For reasons the script leaves to our imaginations, she offers to pay his debts on the condition he never show his face in her presence again.
Here are just a handful of ways the film goes against the Hollywood grain: Its creators never for a moment use Deneuve’s illness to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. On the contrary, she’s a cipher and not a particularly sympathetic one. Likewise, Roussillon doesn’t go into emotional overdrive following his wife’s diagnosis. (Just imagine how differently an American actor such as Nicolas Cage might play the character!) As we saw in the first scene, angst isn’t in this patriarch’s repertoire. Abel Vuillard is attentive and philosophical. He fills whole chalkboards with squiggly equations calculating his wife’s chances for survival in various treatment scenarios.
He also decides the time has come to reunite the family under one roof. The reason is twofold: Christmas is right around the corner, and the love of his life has only so many Christmases left. Plus, a bone marrow transplant would give Junon perhaps an extra year or two, and Abel wants her children and their children to undergo testing for a possible match.
Can you envision the by-the-numbers histrionics that would ensue from this scenario in a Hollywood picture? The director (who cowrote the screenplay with Emmanuel Bourdieu) doesn’t ignore the countless grudges and wounds that accompany his characters home; he simply presents the viewer with unexpected ways of dealing with them. Try to conceive, for example, of the following exchange between a mother and her long-lost son in an American film: “Still don’t love me?’ he says with a grin. “I never did,” she answers, before taking a deep drag on her cigarette.
The exchange is even more significant because black sheep Henri is the only one of Junon’s children who proves compatible. On learning the news, the mother pronounces that he “comes from my womb. I’m taking back what’s mine.” Of course, the decision is finally his. The procedure could kill him. And his family hasn’t exactly smothered him with love lately.
A Christmas Tale was inspired not by a bestselling novel but by “La greffe,” a treatise on transplants by psychoanalyst Jacques Ascher and hematologist Jean-Pierre Jouet. Which is at once nutty and entirely fitting. While it may never get around to that group hug, the film offers a brilliantly off-kilter rumination on the all-transcending bond of blood.