I’m almost at a loss as to what to say about A Christmas Tale (2008). It’s one of those films that I saw on a whim, a wild impulse, only to be bowled over by it’s wild emotion and scope that seems to extend a lifetime. In just two and a half hours, I feel as though I’ve come to know an entire family, and part of that is not always understanding why they act the way they do. Usually with films about unresolved conflicts and tension, something is well.. resolved, but we are not always given answers here, except when we didn’t even know there were questions.
The Vuillard family is inexplicably neurotic, plagued by self-abuse, feuds, and physical illness. Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is the family’s matriarch, who has been diagnosed with a degenerate cancer, her only hope is a bone marrow transplant, but her genetic make-up is especially rare so there is little hope. Her family is tested in hopes of finding a match, and somehow her physical tragedy brings everyone together for what may be one last Christmas. This includes, the once estranged middle child, Henri, who was “exiled” by his own sister years before, his sister’s psychologically disturbed child, and a cousin mourning his lust for a relative’s wife.
The film never falls too deeply into the multiple neurosis of the characters, and though I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with melodrama, it avoids it’s pitfalls as well. It’s an incredibly well crafted story, balancing not only a huge cast of characters, but a great range of themes, ideas and emotions. It’s quite overwhelming, and I can’t imagine quite getting a hold on many of the film’s intricacies without having seen it a few more times.
There are many points to touch on, and there isn’t a single storyline that I don’t find thrilling or completely engrossing. There are three in particular that stand out for me though. The first is the middle son’s story, Henri (brought to life by the always consistent, Mathieu Amalric). He never seemed to have been given a fair shake, born not even by accident, but out of necessity to treat an older brother who was diagnosed with cancer. It reminds me, at least indirectly, to the worst novel I ever read My Sister’s Keeper that in the span of several hundred pages, does not approach the breadth of the effects it has on Henri long into adulthood. He isn’t damaged… at least not necessarily more so than the rest of his family, but there is a certain air of detachment, and even resentment that he feels towards his parents, especially his mother. His every move, action and behavior almost seems tied to him being unwanted, and is further alienated by his abrasive nature, and the death of his first wife. He seems to be the key to understanding the entire family, he’s the outsider, the one who has been banished…and is finally brought back at a time of great need.
Next up is the nephew, a teenage boy who as the film begins, has a nervous breakdown. He’s neither precautions, not apparently angsty or angry. Like his uncle, he seems doomed by circumstance. Born into melancholy, and his constant desire for meaning and love were the only moments that brought tears to my eyes. There is a moment he gives a speech to his mother, where he apologizes for being a failure. It’s been done a million and one times, but there was not only so much sincerity and conviction, but the mother’s numb reaction. She assures him she loves him for who he is, and I believe her… but it’s typically cold. His attachment to his uncles, one of which he last saw when he was 3, is heartbreaking. Henri’s constant dismissal and belittling of him to his face, and behind his back is difficult to watch sometimes. It’s clear he’s not lashing out at the boy because he ever did anything to him, but more as a demonstration of self-hatred. It doesn’t justify his actions, but the beauty of the film is, it never feels the need to justify or explain his behavior.
Third is Sylvia, the youngest son’s wife. Through a series of events, she comes to the startlingly realization that her life is not her own, and her foundation was built on a decision she didn’t even know occurred. It radically changed her world view, and moves her to do what she wouldn’t have considered just days before. Her husband’s reaction, and acceptance of this is more than just a twist or defying our expectations, it works organically with who these people are and evolve over the course of the few days. The happiness she finds, and the passion that is ignited is extremely raw and it feels… for lack of a better word, right.
I’ve only touched the surface of the film, ignoring almost entirely the exciting craft and technique used to bring the story together. My favourite unexpected touch being the use of shadow puppets to tell the family’s back story. Little touches like this are sparkled throughout, never allowed to dominate the characters or events taking place. One of those films that seems impervious to criticism, though I’m sure I’m very wrong on this front… it’s easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year, no easy feat, considering my love for Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, which I happen to hold as his best film (I’m weird I know). If you have to see one film this year, please see this.