A 'Christmas Tale' for the big kids

French film examines complicated family dynamics with raw honesty, an unflinching eye **** ( 4 STARS)

December 12, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

At last, a great contemporary holiday movie that's strictly for grown-ups - a holiday movie that really is a moviegoer's holiday from desultory daily fare.

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale maintains a humorous sangfroid about matters of life and death, then explodes into epiphanies. Catherine Deneuve has never been more magnificent - or should we say magnifique? - as Junon, a matriarch who approaches terminal illness and family upheaval with breathtaking directness. The zesty-if-sad-eyed Jean-Paul Rousillon plays Abel, her sane, salt-of-the-earth husband.

Leading a household tinged with tragedy ever since the early death of their first-born from leukemia (the disease that Junon suffers from now), they hold sway over a brood at odds with themselves or with the world. These parents dominate family life even when it goes against their will: That's one of the movie's many charms.

When was the last time a movie mother admitted she didn't love one of her sons, to his face? You hear it here and you understand why, thanks to the spellbinding frankness of Deneuve and the self-lacerating tragicomedy of Mathieu Amalric as Henri, her third-born. Henri may have a doubly tragic past (his beloved wife died in a car crash), but he's also a jerky black sheep. This amazing screw-up pulls off appalling stunts such as buying a theater to showcase the plays of his strong yet pathos-laden older sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). Then he doesn't pay the bills. He has spent time in the slammer for fraud, but his real punishment is banishment from the family at Elizabeth's orders. He unilaterally defies that banishment on this particular Christmas.

Like the characters in a Preston Sturges movie, but one salted with Gallic identity crises, each man or woman in this movie carries a Punch and Judy theater in the brain. Elizabeth must face other crises besides Henri's reappearance in her life, notably the potential schizophrenia of her son Paull (Emile Berling). Even the family mediator, the youngest child, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), with a knock-out wife, Sylvia (played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter), and two fiercely funny young twin boys, sees a tough boulevard ahead. Sylvia and Ivan's cousin Simone (Laurent Capelluto) are suddenly facing up to dangerous, long-simmering feelings.

At times, Desplechin's attitude echoes that of Henri's voluptuous Jewish girlfriend (Emannuelle Devos). When everyone keeps comparing her backside to Angela Bassett's, she shrugs off their flattery the way she shrugs off their craziness: with a Mona Lisa smile. She treats the family circus as a stinging real-life sitcom. She keeps what she loves about Henri private.

She knows this family's compulsive arguments never lead to peace. But that's not what director Desplechin wants for his gifted and attractive men and women. He has made a movie about people finding authentic baselines for their lives, even if they rest on sorrow and confusion. Desplechin's confidence that his characters can live with chaos and derive a full measure of passion and fulfillment catapults this movie past dreary kitchen-sink comedy-drama.

Elizabeth may be the only out-and-out artist among them, but Desplechin sees what even Ingmar Bergman did not: All people, artists or not, contain complex imaginations. (Call this a Fanny and Alexander for the rest of us.) Although Abel is content to run a dye factory, he and Junon have raised a family that loves making music and extravagant scenes on all sorts of stages. This movie's vibrancy emerges from the director's immediate and all-encompassing love for his characters. He generates comedy from their real emotions as well as their urge to force emotions. He creates a seriocomic cavalcade from all the goodhearted clumsiness, unexpected rifts and surprising alliances of reunion.

The film's strong visual poetry blooms partly from poignant or funny interludes with shadow puppets and kids' theater, and partly from a vigorous portrait of a provincial city (Roubaix, France), but mostly from its characters' flesh - ripening or sallow, taut or sagging. Desplechin's eye envelops them all in consoling warmth and bequeaths everyone with a privileged moment of faith, hope or charity.

Crucially, Desplechin interconnects the looming tension of Junon's leukemia with Paul's despair and Henri's dissolute brand of anarchy. Paul and Henri are the only potential bone marrow donors for her in the bunch. (Henri has the most bone-deep reason for wanting to make the contribution.) Their drama wreaks havoc on the imperious Elizabeth and the affable Abel but also grounds them.

Elizabeth must learn, as Abel has, that truthseekers may never possess insight; their odysseys take them outside themselves. Often other people become their anchors. And during the course of A Christmas Tale, and for hours afterward, these characters may anchor you.

If Desplechin does not destine them all for a holiday rebirth, he allows each to achieve moments of sublime crackpot grace and permits us to share in all of it. You even love the ones you'd never live with. They conjure a healing honesty.

A Christmas Tale

(IFC Films) Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Cosigny, Melvil Poupaud. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Unrated. Time 152 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

Online Watch a preview and see more photos from A Christmas Tale at baltimoresun.com/movies

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