Saturday, October 25, 2008

CIFF '08: A Christmas Tale

Like his previous film Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) is a fractured family drama, in this instance set around Christmas at the Vuillard house right after the family learns that the matriarch of the family, played by Catherine Deneuve, has been diagnosed with a degenerative type of cancer. The cancer can only be treated through injected bone marrow, and each member of the family is tested to see whether or not they match Deneuve's rare type, which brings them all together at their childhood home in the days leading up to Christmas. The sprawling family is largely made up of Desplechin regulars like Mathieu Almaric, as the Vuillard's troubled son, Emmanuelle Devos, as Almaric's lover, and Jean-Paul Roussillon, as the older husband of Deneuve. Desplechin divides the film into chapters, with title cards coming up with words like "reunion," and "farewell," but Desplechin's Christmas is hardly storybook-esque. As the film opens we learn that Almaric has been banished by his sister, played by Anne Consigny, after another in a serious of screw ups. Consigny's son just has just been discharged from a psych ward, after suffering a meltdown and coming at her with a knife. As such, the family dynamic is always based in some form of conflict. The numerous story and character threads are weaved by Desplechin in a mixture of film devices, from frequent irises in and out, to having the characters directly address the camera. With all of the family activity and emotional turbulence, Arnaud keeps Deneuve's wavering search for a marrow match as the through line of the film, and allows the rest to be as messy and untidy as life often is. What emerges from the confusion and film devices is the characters, bolstered by uniformly superb performances, including a strong turn from an increasingly reliable Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real life daughter, playing the wife of one of Almaric's brothers, for whom another brother holds lingering romantic feelings. At the end of A Christmas Tale, we're left with an often funny, but ultimately sad story of a family moving in separate directions. It's due to the truth of the performances and great aplomb in the way in which Desplechin and co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu' script unfolds that the story feels so organic to its characters. What makes the film so successful is that Desplechin and Bourdieu don't feel the need to tie up their Tale with a bow, but rather let its characters and various story threads remain messy and realistic, and that's the real gift.

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