A Christmas Tale
Running Time 150 minutes
Written by Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Cosigny, Mathieu Amalric
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, from a screenplay (in French with English subtitles) by Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, can best be described as a family epic that culminates in a stormy Christmas reunion, rearranging many of the marital and sibling alignments under the pressure of a medical emergency. Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the family matriarch, whose diagnosed leukemia prompts a desperate search within the family for a compatible bone marrow donor to treat Junon’s condition. Even when two donors are found, the medical uncertainties abound to the extent that the operation may turn out to be either life-saving or needless. Indeed, uncertainties abound in all the relationships.
The backstory of the Vuillard family is told in childlike drawings of Junon (Ms. Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the parents at first of two children, Joseph and Elizabeth. When Joseph becomes the victim of a rare genetic disease, the child’s only hope is a bone marrow transplant. Since his parents and his sister, Elizabeth, prove incompatible, Abel and Junon conceive a third child in the hope of saving Joseph, but little Henri is also unable to save his brother, who dies at the age of 7.
After a fourth child, Ivan, is born, the Vuillard family begins to recover from the death of the firstborn. Yet new challenges are not long in coming. Several years later, Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) has become a successful playwright living in Paris, and is married to Claude (Hippolite Girardot), a mathematician. Her younger brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), has risen in the business world, and then fallen into bankruptcy among strong suspicions of fraud. Elizabeth bails out her brother and banishes him from the family at the same time. That is the price she demands for keeping him out of jail. As it turns out, the other members of the family can never quite understand why Henri has disappeared from their lives. For her part, Elizabeth sinks into the deepest melancholy in the following years, and again no one knows why. Her marriage to Claude seems relatively untroubled, though their teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling), has become a moody loner.
The words “family curse” are never employed in the film, the implication being that all families are beset with similar problems. At this juncture, it is Junon’s husband, Abel, much older than his wife, who steps up to become the stabilizing influence in the troubled family. In this capacity, he seizes on the perilous prognosis for Junon’s affliction to bring the family—the black sheep, Henri, included—together for what may possibly be the last reunion of the whole family.
Henri, notorious womanizer that he is, accepts the invitation, and arrives with his latest conquest, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos). And it is with a sense of triumph that Henri confronts his longtime nemesis, Elizabeth, with the news that he and her adolescent son, Paul, are the only two family members who are compatible bone marrow donors for Junon. And since Paul is too emotionally unstable for the ordeal entailed in the operation, Henri is automatically installed as the only hope for their mother’s survival.
During Henri’s long absence from the family, Junon’s nephew, Simon (Laurent Capelluto), whom she took into the Vuillard family when his own parents died, has been the only constant presence trying to keep the family together. Yet, he, a gifted painter, also becomes a disruptive influence when Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), the wife of Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), discovers from some family gossip that Simon has loved her from the first moment he saw her, but deferred to Ivan’s more voluble passion for Sylvia so as not to cause discord in the family.
Hence, on Christmas night, Sylvia insists on making love to Simon, and there is little her husband, Ivan, can do about it. By now, the Francophiles among us must be aware that A Christmas Tale is endowed with a remarkable assemblage of French screen personalities, who bring every confrontation of this tumultuous narrative to pulsating life under the sensitive direction of Arnaud Desplechin, whose eight sparkling feature films in 17 years have made him one of France’s preeminent auteurs. A Christmas Tale is a film experience to be seen and savored for its exquisite delineation of human feelings and foibles.