A Christmas Tale: The Inescapable Family

In the eight films he’s made since 1991, Arnaud Desplechin has been developing a visionary world, a personal style that goes against the grain of standard cinematic practice today. He’s a master of ensemble mise-en-scène and a brilliant director of actors, and his interest tends to fan out over many characters, whose mixed strengths and flaws jolt the viewer out of easy identification with any of them, compelling instead a more complex, deferred, time-capsule-release sympathy. This environmental, novelistically long approach, with its digressive and converging plotlines, is admirably suited to the family romance, a specialty of Desplechin’s, with A Christmas Tale his greatest example.

His fascination with the bonds of family distinguishes Desplechin and many French filmmakers of his generation from their New Wave predecessors. That famous movement’s auteurs disdained Freudian psychology (at least at first) and rarely embedded their protagonists in familial contexts; think of Godard, whose characters spring to life in an existential present, with no hint of having had parents, much less grandparents. The important generation of French directors that followed, including Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat, Jacques Doillon, Catherine Breillat, Olivier Assayas, and Desplechin (born in 1960, the same year the New Wave crested internationally), may be heavily identified with the formal freedom and nonstudio look of that earlier era, but they’ve also been much more inclined to pursue parent-child connections, perhaps because they are offspring, so to speak, of the groundbreaking New Wave. For example, Garrel casts his own father and son in his movies; in his lovely Summer Hours, Assayas traces the fortunes of a family at the point of dispersal; and Desplechin focuses relentlessly on family dynamics, from his first film, La vie des morts, up through The Sentinel, My Sex Life . . . or How I Got into an Argument (where the collegial circle becomes a second, substitute family), Esther Kahn, Kings and Queen, and now A Christmas Tale.

Recently, the impulse to tackle intergenerational narratives may say something about the state of French politics or a conserving impulse (even on the part of left-wing filmmakers) toward traditional culture at a moment when globalization is eroding any sense of national identity. For Desplechin especially, the family is an inevitable starting point. It may be deeply messed up—“dysfunctional,” if you prefer—riven by jealousies, enmities, and unsettled scores. There may never be quite enough love to go around. The family may be the original source of the individual’s neurotic split. Yet for all its drawbacks, the center somehow holds: the family unit is inescapable.

In A Christmas Tale, the members of the cultivated Vuillard family—all play instruments, spout aphorisms—seem to have divvied up among themselves all possible responses to life’s trials. The first trial, from which all subsequent traumas followed, was the death of the firstborn, Joseph, in childhood. The pater­familias, Abel (ably played by veteran actor Jean-Paul Roussillon), is a kindly stoic who counsels forgiveness and tolerance, and is more often than not shot down for it. His wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve, in a performance beyond praise), is a cool-hearted realist who knows the limits of her capacity to love and the power of her survival instinct. Their dour, unhappy daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), has taken the path of self-righteous anger, condemning her scapegoated scapegrace younger brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who in turn stirs the pot with buffoonish stunts that do little to allay the others’ mistrust of him. Then there is the youngest brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who tries to be peacemaker; his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni); cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto); Elizabeth’s disturbed son, Paul (Emile Berling); and several relatives and hangers-on, including Henri’s girlfriend, Faunia (the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos). All are brought together at Christmastime to engage an immediate crisis: Junon is suffering from a rare form of cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her children or grandchildren.

We can, if we wish, see Desplechin’s film as a tougher version of that recent Hollywood Christmas crowd-pleaser The Family Stone, which also features a large clan converging on a mother stricken with cancer. In fact, A Christmas Tale follows in the footsteps of the holiday family-reunion film that The Family Stone represents, even as it deviates substantially from that tradition, with its rockier roads to reconciliation and its bumpier camera moves. There are also echoes here of Ingmar Bergman’s Christmas preparations in Fanny and Alexander (with Faunia’s skeptical Jewish outsider reprising Erland Josephson’s Isak role)—not to mention the many Bergman films where a quite breathtaking animosity breaks out within couples or between parent and child.

What sets A Christmas Tale apart from any holiday film in memory, however, is its technique. Desplechin has always been an immensely skillful and vigorous visual stylist who stops just short of making a fetish of the pictorial. Here he employs a catchall of self-conscious devices that draw our attention to the film’s fabrication: chapter headings, actors directly addressing the cam­era, iris shots, split screens, shadow puppets representing the characters, multiple first-person voice-overs, and a third-person omniscient narrator. Oddly enough, none of these devices have the Brechtian alienation effect of taking us out of the action in order to induce critical reflection; rather, they are shortcuts that propel us further into the naturalistic narrative. They are all warming, amusing modes of storytelling, and very New Wave (think of Truffaut’s high-speed openings in Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim). Their ultimate effect is to keep us off balance. The same could be said for the director’s approach here to individual shots, a stutter-step technique that includes short pans and tracks, multiple takes of actions that last only a few seconds, and a good deal of cutting. The aesthetic of deep-focus, long-duration takes that Desplechin developed in earlier films has been jettisoned, replaced by the visual equivalent of turntable scratching (as we see Ivan do as DJ of the town dance). And if the visuals keep us jarred, the soundtrack’s astounding variety, from Vivaldi to raga to Cecil Taylor, induces another sort of disorientation.

It is fair to ask: why this set of techniques for this particular film? For one thing, the shot instability reinforces our doubt that any of the protagonists can be trusted entirely. Rationalization distorts each of their perspectives, and the image on-screen often suggests the camera has a subjective angle too. For instance, when Elizabeth narrates her flashback about why she hates Henri, taking us to a courtroom scene, Amalric’s Henri is shown skulking in a weaselly, malevolent manner. But did he actually act this way or is it merely Elizabeth’s prejudiced memory? Desplechin leaves that for us to decide. Another instance: We see Paul looking into a mirror; a black dog stands in the background. We later learn from his own spoken testimony that he was having a hallucination. All we can do is store what we first see in our memory, not certain what it means; but the unsteady way Desplechin shoots the scene has already made us suspect its reliability.

The director also keeps us off kilter, I think, to dilute the melodramatic overtones of the story—the cancer of the mother, the death of her first child, the despair of Elizabeth, the emotional breakdown of Paul, the soul-destroying pining of Simon for Sylvia, his cousin’s wife. Desplechin undercuts the plot material’s potential “heaviness” not just with a virtuoso array of self-conscious cinematic techniques but also with a taste for comedy. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), pummels Henri at the kitchen table in a scene whose violence might have shocked us; instead, it comes across as ridiculous farce, partly through intercut reaction shots of Faunia laughing with embarrassment and partly through the victim’s seeming indifference to the blows—plus, a giddy Irish jig plays in the background. As he showed in Kings and Queen, Desplechin tends to turn obstinately playful in the presence of the grim story lines he has set in motion, such as serious mental illness, familial antipathy, and the looming death of a parent. For this reason, the director’s most oft-used male actor, Mathieu Amalric, with his clown’s self-mocking, sardonic grimace, is the perfect interpreter of Desplechin’s refusal to be crushed by mourning or to surrender to sentimentality.

Lightness and joy frequently overcome the film’s darker notes. You could not ask for a more eloquent testimony of affection between man and woman than when Faunia hugs Henri from behind, saying merely, “My friend.” Even the expressions of hostility have a cauterizing, engaging honesty. One of my favorite scenes is between Deneuve and Amalric on the outdoor swing in the snow. “Still don’t love me?” he asks. “I never did,” she says. “Same here,” he retorts. “I wasn’t a very good mother?” she asks with detached curiosity. The two seem to understand each other so well, and can look so calmly at their lifelong mutual dislike, that you wonder if their antipathy is in earnest or a form of role-playing both have settled into with gusto.

Another example of grace erupting in the midst of recrimi­nations comes when Chiara Mastroianni’s irresistible Sylvia gives herself to her long-suffering adorer, Simon. Without attempting to read too much religious symbolism into this Christmas tale, I can say only that her adulterous disrobing is made to look like an angel’s appearance in an Annunciation. (The lighting in this scene, as at other key moments, is both expressionistic and epiphanic.) When the time comes for Sylvia to send Simon on his way, returning to her children and her husband, she says: “I invented Ivan by living with him. I’ll invent you by not.”

Desplechin and his cowriter Emmanuel Bourdieu offer us the wittiest French dialogue this side of Sacha Guitry. They dare push the envelope of syntactical and semantic complexity as far as the ear can absorb, and the film is as literate as it is visually vibrant. References to Kafka, Emerson, Nietzsche, and the Duc de Saint-Simon abound; poems are quoted and long prose passages read aloud. These literary texts are just one of many cultural layers in the movie, from the tapestry of jazz and classical music on the soundtrack to the glimpses of such movies as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Funny Face, The Ten Commandments . . . If we look for special meanings in this chain of references, they all seem to point to the possibility of the miraculous, the fantastic, or the spiritually elevated breaking through the glum logjam of everyday malaise. Beyond that, the Vuillards surround themselves with cultural artifacts that might teach them how to live, but their ability to cope finally comes down to a roll of the dice. Will Junon’s body accept or reject the bone marrow transplant?

That still leaves the crisis of Elizabeth’s melancholia. “Why am I always so sad?” this successful playwright asks her father. He offers a number of answers, including that she expects people to be perfect and that she has taken on the grieving function for her whole family, which still mourns the loss of Joseph. Another reason might be that she has no sense of humor, making her an anomaly among the director’s personae. But it is something like a chicken-or-egg conundrum: which came first, her sadness, her humorlessness, or her self-righteousness? Somehow, by the end, even Elizabeth gets her bearings.

Desplechin generally makes exceptionally long films—perhaps because the extra time allows him to explore a set of crises in depth and then move beyond them to some greater wisdom or acceptance. As in his previous film, the similarly lengthy Kings and Queen, Amalric’s bizarre, borderline bipolar character is merely the most extreme, scapegoat member of a set of unhappy, broken people who must find their way to repair, first by avoiding their relations, then by returning to the scene of the crime—the family nest—and colliding like bumper cars with each other until the shaking up produces the desired healing. Yes, people go crazy, Desplechin suggests, or become melancholy because life suddenly seems unbearable, but then they get over it and come out the other end. That there is another end ranks him finally with the optimists. 

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