Ingmar Bergman may have died in 2007, but his spirit lives on and that is particularly true in this sprawling saga that could easily be described as a French Fanny and Alexander. That opening statement is enough to attract a certain kind of moviegoer… and deter another kind. This Christmas tale is certainly not perfect. There were times when I was dangerously close to dozing off for a while, and some critics have dismissed the film as pretentious, but there are enough powerful moments and ingredients to happily resist falling asleep.
The first scene takes us back to the funeral of Joseph Vuillard, a boy whose illness defeated him at a young age. We are informed that his parents, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve), had more children who lived to see adulthood. They are in order of birth Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud). As the clan gathers a few days before Christmas the problems pile up. Junon has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant. Henri turns out to be the only one of her children capable of donating bone marrow and he agrees to do it.
The fact that he gets to be the hero doesn’t exactly help his frozen relationship with Elizabeth who hates everything he stands for; she once offered to help him financially after a business deal gone bad if he promised to disappear out of her life forever. They have absolutely nothing in common; Elizabeth is chronically depressed without quite understanding why (it is however likely connected to Joseph’s death) and Henri lives every day as if it’s his last one but in a bad way; he smokes and drinks too much and tells everyone exactly how he feels regardless of the painful consequences. The story also reveals other problems within the family, such as a recent suicide attempt committed by Elizabeth’s teenage son, Paull (Emile Berling).
Cosy Christmas atmosphere
Several other characters and issues are introduced, but director Arnaud Desplechin and his co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu don’t make it too difficult for viewers to keep track of these folks. They’re a colorful bunch and the cast is helpful. These days, Deneuve usually plays charismatic and imposing matrons and her portrait of the mother here is terrific; she never shows her fear of what the cancer can do to her, but remains practical… and that goes for the relationship with her children as well, viewing them objectively like people of virtues and flaws rather than as her “babies”.
Roussillon, with a voice raspy enough to saw wood, is wonderful as her intellectual husband and Amalric is of course the appropriate choice to play the bad seed, the son who can’t understand why the rest of the family ignores Elizabeth’s mental issues. The story takes place on December 22-25 and cinematographer Eric Gautier creates a warm, cosy Christmas atmosphere in the bourgeoisie home that envelops everyone even as they move from one crisis to another.
The soundtrack incorporates various genres (although seasonal tunes dominate), but the music is effectively chosen. The director’s personal touches (such as giving every day of the story a specific theme, a chapter) is a generally good idea, although the use of what resembles a peeping perspective seems pointless.
The film ends with some hope of reconciliation and better health. It’s not a happy ending, it’s a hint of one. Many scenes in the film are rich and amusing, but it is also startling to see the hatred that can appear between family members. Bergman knew all about that and Desplechin nurses that legacy well.
A Christmas Tale 2008-France. 152 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Pascal Caucheteux. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Screenplay: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu. Cinematography: Eric Gautier. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Junon Vuillard), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel Vuillard), Mathieu Amalric (Henri Vuillard), Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot… Chiara Mastroianni.
Trivia: Original title: Un conte de Noël.
Last word: “I had a lot of bits of text by Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of them came from the diary that he wrote when his own son died and then also something that he wrote 20 years after the death of his son. It had a real poetic power to it. Yet because it was philosophy I didn’t understand it. But I wondered what an actor could make of it. He has this very strange line where he says, ‘My son detached himself from me the way a leaf detaches itself from a tree,’ and I wanted to know the story that would make a father say something like that. What is behind it? And what story can I invent?” (Desplechin, Reverse Shot)