A Christmas Tale Review
In the same year that Olivier Assayas took a reflective look at family relationships, time and the passing of generations in Summer Hours, another French director Arnaud Desplechin, one already well known for his coruscating views on family matters from La vie des morts to Rois et reine, assembled an equally stellar cast for A Christmas Tale, where it is not so much a bereavement that briefly reunites a family that has already started to go their own separate ways, but rather it’s a bereavement already long in the past that has defined who they are and almost destroyed them.
The prologue to A Christmas Tale notes the death in the Viullard family of the young first-born child, Joseph, who died from cancer at only six years of age. His parents Abel and Junon (Jean-Paul Roussillon and Catherine Deneuve) have three other children – Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), but the death of Joseph seems to have had a profound impact on the Viullards and in some respects broken the back of the family, and as a result there are serious personality conflicts and personal issues that have placed the children at odds with one another over the years. Henri in particular is unstable, undisciplined, unreliable and untrustworthy and the bitterness between the family is such that when he gets into serious financial trouble in his business dealings, he is bailed out by his sister Elizabeth on the condition that he have no further contact with her ever again in any family matter.
When their mother Junon is diagnosed with cancer however, a bone marrow transplant is required and a donor with a rare blood type needs to be found. Gathered together at the family home in Roubaix over the Christmas holidays, the family have to try to put aside differences to decide which is the best option, but having taken blood tests, the choice is not as easy one, as the only suitable donors are Elizabeth’s son Paul Dédalus – a young boy recently hospitalised after an episode of mental illness – and Henri, the black sheep of the family. The operation is a delicate one and the blood could be rejected or even kill Juno, but ‘bad blood’ of another kind threatens the family gathering.
A Christmas Tale then is no so different from other Arnaud Desplechin films and in many ways it’s a reworking or summation of themes that the director has obsessively chronicled in many of his films – most recently in Kings and Queen (Rois et reine) – the protective and corrupting nature of families, the destruction wreaked in the breaking of those bonds and how its foundations are rocked by significant events such as marriage, divorce, death, and often, mental illness. A commonplace subject you might think, but in a Desplechin film the kind of bitterness and contempt that arises out of these matters is particularly vicious, fuelling the kind of sentiments of intense hatred that can only come when one knows another person deeply and only really through a blood relationship where betrayals are felt all the more keenly and the damage to familial bonds becomes completely irreparable. We’re talking Greek tragedy levels, something that is often alluded to – as here with the names of several of the characters – in Desplechin’s films.
Somewhat autobiographical in nature, Desplechin’s treatment of this subject matter is assured, each of the characters brilliantly defined, each with their own personality, the director ensuring that the trajectory that throws them together is carefully delineated, leaving just enough room for mysterious behavioural patterns and dark secrets that have to be worked out. This often leads to a somewhat fractured narrative, but the cut-and-paste nature suits the content, Desplechin creating resonances and seismic disturbances between characters in his manner of contrasting behaviours and timing of revelations. In A Christmas Tale events are a little more linear – which suggests that either the film is a little too smoothly constructed or that Desplechin is just getting better at structuring and directing the narrative, but the impact is severely lessened. Or perhaps the novelty is wearing off, the film’s dysfunctional characters, the family secrets and the situations playing out much as they have in the director’s previous films, only with rough edges of the more intriguing narrative devices – such as characters returning as revenants – smoothed out in favour of more conventional ways of delivering messages from the past. The special effects then – split-screen effects, some inexplicable irising, and direct-to-camera monologues – are less jarring here than quirky in a Wes Anderson manner, the film in particular even showing an influence of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Desplechin’s handling of the family collective however is effortless, showing complete mastery of their individual situations and how they interact. This allows for fully rounded characters and some wonderful performances, Amalric’s Henri in particular being a joy to watch, aided and abetted in his eccentricities by the always fine Emmanuelle Devos, but the conflicted troubled nature of Anne Consigny’s Elizabeth – as a writer ostensibly the main narrative voice in the film – and her struggle to preserve her own family from the wider problems of the Viullard’s makes her performance equally fascinating to follow. And by the end, if there’s nothing deeper to be uncovered in A Christmas Tale, the potentially damaging supremacy of the female members of the family becomes the dominant theme in Desplechin’s work. The faint hint of misogyny that may have been detected in previous films is revealed here (and confirmed in the director’s documentary feature L’Aimée) rather as being if not admiration then at least a cautious respect for the awesome forces that the women members of the family wield, their unfathomable drives, infinite resources and sense of self-preservation granting them the ultimate power to influence, forgive or maintain deep divisions extending even beyond ties of blood.
A Christmas Tale is released in the UK by New Wave Films. The film is released as a 2-disc set, the feature presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
If it’s disappointing that we don’t get a Blu-ray edition of Un conte de Nöel in the UK that was released in France, the quality of this regular DVD edition almost makes up for it. Clearly derived from the High-Definition master, the video transfer here, anamorphically transferred at the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and progressively encoded, looks marvellous. When upscaled to 1080p, it showed not a mark, not a flicker, just a beautiful, fluid, stable transfer with a detailed image and superb colouration in every scene, regardless of the lighting. Take for example the brief scene between Sophia and Simon in the café, with the low lighting, red and green backgrounds and examine the fine detail, the well-defined tones and the strong shadows. Viewed on a computer monitor for the capture of screengrabs however, flicker and blocking caused by macro compression was more evident, so the quality of the transfer may vary depending on how it is displayed or projected.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 options are available, neither is particularly showy, but both do exactly what is demanded of them. The surround track doesn’t make a great deal of obvious use of the rear speakers, but there is subtle ambience, and dialogue and music are clear without being too bright.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is white and clearly readable.
Disc 1 contains the film’s Trailer (1:53), presented anamorphically at the original ratio, summing up the film and the sense of conflict well.
Disc 2 presents Arnaud Desplechin’s documentary film L’Aimée (The Beloved) (1.03:22). Made in 2007, the inspiration of A Christmas Tale is clearly revealed as having autobiographical roots, Desplechin through conversations with his father, through letters and photographs, delving into the strange background of his grandmother, who died young of TB, her son (Desplechin’s father) never having any real contact with her as she was isolated away from the family on account of her disease. Brought up instead by one of her sisters, who became the de-facto mother of his father – the film being made at the time of a clearing out of the family house after her death – L’Aimée also testifies to the powerful influence of women and the impact their actions can have on family life.
It’s somewhat disappointing to find nothing really new from Arnaud Desplechin in A Christmas Tale and that the edgy, jarring qualities of his earlier work have been smoothed out into a much more accessible format. It’s also hard to see any deeper meaning in the film, or a view on family relationships that is anything more than a refinement of his usual semi-autobiographical material, but it’s a fine film nonetheless, expertly assembled and exquisitely played. Although the documentary L’Aimée seems a rather confusing and self-indulgent examination of the director’s own middle-class family background, it does work well alongside A Christmas Tale, giving it a new dimension and throwing some new light on the subject, and as such is the perfect accompaniment in this 2-disc release from New Wave Films to an exceptional DVD transfer for the film itself.