A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noёl]

Arnaud Desplechin
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, Jacques Asher & Jean-Pierre Toy
Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussilon
Screening Date:
  • 15 Dec 2020
  • Categories:
    Comedy, Drama

    This rollercoaster of a Christmas family reunion uncovers the real dynamics of the French Vuillard family, with Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch needing a bone-marrow transplant.

    Film Notes

    Ah, Home for the Holidays and Extra Helpings of Family Dysfunction.

    Late in “A Christmas Tale” Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the mirthful, patient patriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s noisy, cloying and altogether marvelous new film, reads aloud from the opening pages of Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals.” His audience is his oldest child, Élizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has been complaining about the inexplicable sadness that perpetually afflicts her. (Early in the movie she offered the same complaint to her therapist.) As comfort and chastisement, Abel recites a long passage about the futility of our desire for self-knowledge and our alienation from our own experience.

    “We rub our ears after the fact,” Nietzsche wrote, “and ask in complete surprise and embarrassment, ‘What just happened?,’ or even, ‘Who are we really?’ ” “A Christmas Tale,” which follows the extended Vuillard family through a few days and several lifetimes’ worth of hectic emotional confusion, induces a similar state of astonishment. Abel and Élizabeth are only two of a dozen vividly drawn, painfully human characters, all of them prone to self-analysis, none of them especially blessed with self-understanding. After two and a half hours in their thrilling, exhausting company, the intimacy we feel with them is wired with bafflement and surprise. What just happened? Who are they really?

    Such estrangement the gap between the things we do and the reasons we supply for doing them, between who we think we are and who we appear, to others, to be is, for Mr. Desplechin, both a theme and a premise. His films are headlong, ardent explorations of failure, misunderstanding and emotional warfare, which turn out to be roughly synonymous with nobility, generosity and love. Everyone in his world is so complicated that it’s a wonder a single house, family, film or planet could contain more than one, and yet his characters only exist, they are only really themselves, in groups, in crowds, in agonized and imperfect relation to one another.

    The crowd that gathers in the stately old Vuillard house in Roubaix, a small industrial city tucked away in France’s northeastern corner, includes Abel’s wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and three children, Élizabeth, Henri and Ivan, and Élizabeth’s teenage son, Paul (Émile Berling), who suffers from a mental disorder. Abel and Junon’s first child, a boy named Joseph, died of a rare form of leukemia in childhood, and his death continues to haunt the family. This is less because of lingering grief though Abel in particular seems to carry the loss of his firstborn close to his heart than because Junon has recently been diagnosed with the same illness that killed her son. Her only hope for survival is a bone marrow transplant, and her children and grandchildren undergo tests to determine if one of them might be a suitable donor. There is a chance, however, that Junon’s body will reject the marrow, meaning that every possible savior is also her potential killer.

    Illnesses mental and terminal, the death of a child, the reunion of a big family just in time for the holidays Mr. Desplechin lines up all the elements of a hokey domestic melodrama. And then he sends them flying, with impish brio, in every possible direction, adding melody from Cecil Taylor to Vivaldi, from Irish jig to Francophone hip-hop and whatever cinematic technique comes to hand. There are stretches of voice-over narration and moments when characters speak directly into the camera, but these devices, which might be ironical or distancing, instead serve to heighten the sense of vigor and immediacy.

    The narrative swerves and sudden crises in “A Christmas Tale” (“Un Conte de Noël”) are less extreme than those in some of Mr. Desplechin’s other films the sublimely wayward “My Sex Life,” for instance, or his dysfunctional masterpiece, “Kings and Queen.” But this frantically eventful movie has a plot only in the sense that a child has a fever. The logic and sequence of events is not an order imposed on experiential chaos, but rather a pattern within that chaos itself, a symptom and a sign of life.

    Mr. Desplechin’s prime embodiment of disorder his alter id, you might say is once again Mathieu Amalric, who has appeared in three of this director’s previous films (and who is also the latest James Bond villain). He plays Henri, the black sheep of the Vuillard clan and Élizabeth’s mortal enemy. Alcoholic and impetuous, Henri, who arrives unexpectedly with his new lover, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), jolts the rest of the family into spasms of pity, resentment and half-admiring amazement at his sheer nerve.

    A simple catalog of dramatis personae would make “A Christmas Tale” seem much more programmatic than it is, since the characters, singly, in pairs or in clusters, veer abruptly onto center stage. Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the youngest sibling and his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Ms. Deveuve’s daughter mischievously cast as her daughter-in-law) seem at first to be tangential to the main story lines, which appear to involve the bitterness between Henri and Élizabeth and the specter of Junon’s illness. But of course no one plays a supporting role in his or her own story, and so a triangle involving Sylvia, Ivan and Ivan’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) temporarily obstructs our view of other matters.

    Mr. Desplechin has a positive genius for making his carefully structured tales seem breathless and aleatory, as if any given film were plucked almost at random from dozens of other possibilities. The result, in the case of “A Christmas Tale,” is a movie that is almost indecently satisfying and at the same time elusive, at once intellectually lofty marked by allusions to Emerson, Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney as well as Nietzsche and as earthy as the passionate provincial family that is its heart and cosmos and reason for being.

     A.O. Scott, The New York Times, 

    Arnaud Desplechin is rightly admired for perceptive films about the complicated lives of self-deceiving French intellectuals, most notably Comment je me suis disputé (ma vie sexuelle) and Rois et reine, both starring the mercurial Mathieu Amalric. But his latest talkative film is a rambling, sporadically engaging story of three generations of a highly dysfunctional family reluctantly drawn together in the northern industrial town of Roubaix to celebrate Christmas and, more important, to decide whose bone marrow is compatible with that of the cold, cancer-stricken matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve).

    Its numerous narrative strands are neither revealingly pursued nor properly intertwined. Dramatically, it resembles those joyless, downbeat, yuletide editions of EastEnders that involve death, fornication and redemption as the characters get drunk under the Christmas tree, indulge in bloodletting revelations and let off fireworks in the snow. Except in this case there are references to Emerson, Nietzsche and Ingmar Bergman.

    Philip French, The Observer, Sun 18 Jan 2009.

    The French Institute in South Kensington, possibly the most ‘French’ part of London, has recently renovated its cinema (unsurprisingly called Ciné Lumière). Catherine Deneuve reopened the cinema earlier this month and she leads an all-star cast in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. It seemed to me like a perfect choice – a rich mixture of French bourgeois relationships simmering and brought to the boil over the ‘festive’ season. Readers of this blog will know that we are wary of the bourgeoisie as a subject, but here I think there are reasons why the film is both enjoyable and worthwhile. I confess that I struggled for the first half hour or so in an overheated cinema (with comfortable seats and lots of leg room) at the end of a long day. The opening introduces a host of family and friends through sometimes elliptical sequences. Gradually, I managed to figure out who was who and the last half of the film was very rewarding as realisation of what some of the narrative strands might deliver slowly seeped in. The whole film is 150 minutes, but I’d watch it again, if only to try to hear all the the wide variety of music extracts and to puzzle out the literary references and those parts of the plot I still didn’t understand.

    In genre terms, it’s a classic family melodrama (I think calling it a comedy/drama is quite misleading – there are comic moments, but it is all about relationships). It’s also an ‘ensemble piece’ in formal terms, with the multi-stranded narrative that implies and finally it could be assigned a tighter generic repertoire based on the timespan across a particular festive period. I think the film would probably be tough for younger students (and it’s too long for classroom use), but older students could find it both engaging and useful. It cries out to be compared with Hollywood and with similar films from China/Hong Kong and Japan. The first major difference may be that the film was not marketed in France as a ‘Christmas film’ (it came out in May). However, in America, its limited release was around Thanksgiving – possibly a more relevant American festival with the convention that family members try to return to the family home for the Thanksgiving dinner. The other odd dimension of A Christmas Tale is that although many of the aspects of a French Christmas are depicted, nobody is really seen cooking or eating to any great extent. The only (quasi-) American Thanksgiving film that I can remember is Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking (2001) which features several families from different ethnic groups in Los Angeles trying to cook and get through the dinner. It did occur to me that A Christmas Tale is almost a provocation to American audiences. Those critics who respond to French Cinema have named it as one of the films of the year – various ‘users’ on IMDB have called it one of the most boring films ever made! I can’t really see the boring criticism, but I’m not surprised at bafflement.

    The central family is the Vuillards – three generations of the French middle class in the town of Roubaix in the North East, situated between Lille and the Belgian border. It’s the director’s home town and, I noticed in doing the research, twinned with my nearest UK city, Bradford. This isn’t so surprising since the two locations have wool textile manufacturing as central to their history. (As an aside, it’s a shame that we don’t see more of the town.) Abel Vuillard, the paterfamilias played by Jean-Paul Roussillon, is a textile dyer with his own small company. With his wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), he has three adult children, played by Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri) and Melvil Poupaud (Ivan). He also took in Simon, his nephew, played by Laurent Capelluto, who grew up with his cousins. Elizabeth has a son with her husband and Ivan has two small boys with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Tragedy has already struck the family twice with the early death of the first Vuillard child, Joseph from leukaemia at the age of 6, and Henri’s wife Madeline in an accident. Now it appears that Junon has a blood cancer and only a bone marrow transplant from someone in the family can give her the prospect of at least a couple of years more. Only Elizabeth’s teenage son and his uncle Henri, the family’s ‘black sheep’, are compatible. But Elizabeth hates her brother and has vowed never to see him again. It doesn’t look like Christmas will be peaceful. Elizabeth’s husband (played by Hippolyte Girardot) flits in and out and the only other two characters who join the party are an elderly friend of Abel’s mother and Henri’s girlfriend, played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

    The American model for the ‘ensemble piece’ might be Robert Altman’s films – possibly The Wedding, but in my view rather more Altman’s last (and under-valued) film, Prairie Home Companion with its thematic of impending death and feuding ‘family’ members. The review in Sight & Sound is by Ginette Vincendeau, doyenne of British based French Cinema academics. She argues that the film is a mix of auteurist cinema and popular entertainment (i.e. in the playing of the star cast), citing the success in France that brought in 500,000 admissions. The genre base does allow a range of other repertoires to be plundered, so as well as the comedy moments, there is certainly romance as well as the possibility of a medical thriller, but overall I think that the auteurist touches predominate. There is so much music of every conceivable genre, references to several films ranging from Funny Face and The Ten Commandments (is this the French equivalent of The Great Escape as the ultimate Christmas movie?) to what I now learn was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I had assumed it was Cocteau). Others have spotted Vertigo references (which I think did dimly impinge on my consciousness, but there was so much else going on I didn’t really notice). Vincendeau suggests that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Renoir’s La Règle du jeu are also referenced, but I thought more about Jane Austen when the children put on a Christmas play. I’d like to find out what the German text was that is quoted extensively from a book heavily annotated in French. I’ve read that it was possibly Kant. 

    Throughout the narrative, there are mysteries, some of which are revealed, others not. Letters and photographs, family stories – why does it matter that Henri’s girlfriend is Jewish? One of the strands that worked well, I thought was the attempt to represent the disease which might kill Junon through a metaphor using mythological figures. The chimera, made up of parts from different animals, stands in perhaps for the DNA of the Vuillard clan. But Desplechin denies us narrative satisfaction. The ending of the film is open. I’m certainly willing to have another go at uncovering the different strands and this was one bourgeois tale that worked for me. 2008 seems to have been an excellent year for French films – at least from the ones released in the UK.

     Roy Stafford,  JANUARY 25, 2009


    What you thought about A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noёl]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    1 (7%) 8 (57%) 4 (29%) 1 (7%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 14
    Film Score (0-5): 3.64

    Collated Response Comments

    62 members tuned into the last film of the calendar year, A Christmas Tale and 14 provided responses resulting in a score of 3.64.

    Here are the comments.

    “Became irritated by the film despite its craft, production values and characterisation. Maybe Xmas makes this film's airing of family complexes appropriate. Fairly much cynical yet charming, over long yet not enough of the complex nature of the family, witty and bitter. Liked Deneuve and her calmness, as well as Amalric's hard sense of irony, yet 150 minutes of it did seem to be almost exhausting. Highs and lows, French cinema does know how to make them”.

    “And there was I thinking I had been present at some badly behaved family gatherings at Christmas. Interesting that the director needed one of his characters to read a dollop of Nietzsche to give meaning to what we'd been enjoying/enduring over the past 2 and a half hours. As with giving meaning to our lives, so too with giving meaning to films”.

    “I have to admit it was a very convoluted premise for a film and it continued down a convoluted road! So much going on in addition to the plot - rich, varied (and incongruous) music throughout, references to film ("Funny Girl", "The Ten Commandments"), to literature & philosophy (Emerson and others I wasn't quick enough to catch), to mathematics (what clever people they were to work out probabilities!), the use of the camera, etc. But I'm still puzzling over the Vuillard family members and their "hangers ons" - what were their motivations, did they know themselves at all, what is family love? However, I couldn't stop watching it which says something (and once I know what that is I'll let you know!)”.

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