Joining "Silent Night, Deadly Night" and "Bad Santa" in the Yuletide Cheer section of your video store is Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" (2008).
The upper class Vuillard family is structured around the absence of its firstborn child, Joseph, who died of leukemia at age six. In the forty plus years since, the family has fractured along fault lines straddling all sides of his grave. The family members' complex reactions to the inciting trauma cross the board. Middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric), stigmatized from birth because he and his incompatible blood were of "no use" to save his older brother, is lazy, spiteful and boorish. Oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) directs her anger both inward (in the form of depression) and outward at Henri who she despises with a pure, white-hot intensity. Little brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is gentler and more passive than his siblings, taking after his father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the family patriarch whose amiability renders him largely irrelevant.
At the center of the storm and of the family is mother Junon, played by Catherine Deneuve in another permutation of her ice queen persona. Junon defies all standard definitions of maternal love. She freely admits that she loves some children more than others (poor Henri), and loves nobody as much as she loves herself. It would be easy to portray her as a stone-hearted monster, but Desplechin and co-screenwriter Emmanuel Bourdieu opt for a more nuanced strategy. Junon knows her limitations and is unashamed of them. She refuses to be the all-sacrificing mother so cherished by classical Hollywood. She's still pretty awful though, but that's just my take. The film adopts a strictly non-judgmental stance.
The Vuillards gather for Christmas but the uncomfortable reunion is redefined by the revelation that Junon is dying of cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant for even a slim chance at survival. This sounds like soap opera material, but Desplechin's dysfunctional fairy tale is told from a detached point of view that is more surgical than melodramatic. Not that sparks don't fly from time to time. A drunken Henri delivers the most awkward toast since "The Celebration" (1998) and Abel's opening sermon about Joseph ("His loss is my foundation") is deeply heartfelt.
Coming from a small and relatively friction-free family, the world of the Vuillards is alien to me which may explain why I was indifferent to the film when I saw it last year. On a second viewing, I was better able to appreciate the vastness of Desplechin's domestic epic. His eye for detail is so fine that the characters' interpersonal relationships are established almost immediately then rendered more ambiguous with each progressive development. Psychology is one of the film's primary concerns, but we still can't answer why, for example, Elizabeth's contempt for Henri is so unrelenting. These characters are no push-button mechanical constructs with easily articulated motivations.
There are so many characters roaming around the Vuillard house, it's difficult to keep track of them as a viewer yet each of them is unique. Ivan's wife Sylvia is serenely narcissistic, not unlike Junon which provides a double meaning: Ivan has married a girl just like mom and she happens to be played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's daughter. Elizabeth's son Paul (Emile Berling) is undergoing treatment for a dissociative disorder (the horror of modern psychiatric medicine tinge many scenes) that suggests the Vuillard family's problem may stem from nature as much as nurture since both of his uncles suffered similar mental health problems. There are many other characters that you'll need to discover on your own.
Desplechin's grab-bag style includes everything from camera irises to direct address and even to the use of puppets, imbuing the film with a sensibility that is paradoxically both old-fashioned and very modern. The tone of the narrative shifts frequently too, mixing in whimsy along with the melancholy.
A quick glance through some reviews produces words like "joyous," "exhilarating" and even "heartwarming," strange terms to apply to a film which requires you to spend two and a half hours with some miserable, self-absorbed people. Yet there's something intoxicating about the film's treatment of its unpleasant characters, something that borders on giddiness at times. It's a bit of a tour-de-force and even if I'm not quite as enthusiastic about it as some, I now understand why it placed so highly in year-end critical polls last year.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Compared to the SD release, the Blu-Ray offers the expected upgrade in terms of image quality. As with the SD, the colors are still fairly muted but that was part of the director's design. The extra detail really brings the domestic spaces to life. You can see a real difference in the kitchen scene when Henri jokes about getting married. The pale-blue and white wall tiles look much sharper than on the SD.
The DVD is presented with a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track. The film's sound design doesn't use the surround channels very much, and I can't say that I noticed a significant difference from the SD Dolby Digital 5.1 to the lossless transfer here. I'm sure the soundtrack sounds better, but it didn't stand out for me.
Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Desplechin's "L'aimée" (2007, 62 min.) is a documentary about the sale of the director's family home. However, it soon turns into a close examination of his uncle's relationship with his mother (the uncle's mother, that is) who died when the uncle was just a boy. It's rather touching and seems like one of the starting points for "A Christmas Tale," though some of the Vuillards (in different versions I think, though my memory on this is hazy) appear briefly in Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" (2004.)
Criterion has also included a new interview (36 min.) with Desplechin, Deneuve, and Amalric. It is in English and it's pretty standard fare for a cast and crew interview.
The Blu-Ray offers the Original Trailer and the American Release Trailer.
The extras are relatively modest on the Criterion scale, but at least the two we get are pretty good.
The 16 page insert booklet features an essay by Phillip Lopate.
Pauline Kael claimed that she never watched a movie more than once. I suspect that she was bullshitting – she was too insightful a critic for that to be true - but I'm glad that I can't and wouldn't want to make the same claim. On a second viewing, "A Christmas Tale" really opened up for me. I wouldn't be surprised if a third viewing proved even more revelatory.
Criterion's release of "A Christmas Tale" is its second in an effort to focus more on contemporary international cinema. Last month they released "Gomorrah" (2008). Steven Soderbergh´s "Che," Steve McQueen´s "Hunger," and Gotz Spielmann´s "Revanche" will follow in the next few months.
Criterion has also released "A Christmas Tale" on SD.
At the time of this review's publication, both the Blu-Ray and SD were offered at the same retail price.