Friday, November 14, 2008

A French Christmas Tale

It’s time to get your Bah Humbug on, en Français. It might be the Christmas season, but there is little comfort and joy when the Vuillards get together. Instead it is family dysfunction of the highest order that comes to the fore in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (trailer here), opening today in New York.

The Vuillards have issues. Ever since the oldest child Joseph died of cancer at age seven, the family dynamics have been out of kilter. Now the children are physically grown, but remain emotionally stunted. Holidays are an ordeal for everyone, but they have been spared the presence of the middle son Henri. After nearly bringing financial ruin on the Vuillards, his younger sister Elizabeth made good on his debts, but at the price of banishment from the family. Henri does not understand how he inspired such resentment, aside from nearly bankrupting the family and just being a complete louse in general.

However, Henri might hold a trump card. His mother Junon has been stricken by the same disease which killed his brother, and so far no family members have proved compatible bone marrow donors. With Faunia, his amused Jewish girlfriend in tow, Henri joins the family for a miserable Vuillard family Christmas and some blood tests at the local hospital.

Tale’s trailer is somewhat misleading. While there is dark comedy, most of the lines in the preview which sound like jokes are said in deadly earnest. This is a largely loveless family of hopelessly incompatible people. Junon the matriarch was too vain and disinterested to love her children. The cold-blooded Elizabeth is incapable of forgetting her grievances. Her son Paul seems to have inherited the recessive underachieving genes which surfaced his black sheep uncle. For his part, Henri takes perverse pleasure in mismanaging his life, while Faunia finds the spectacle of it all amusing. Only their sensitive patriarch Abel shows any kind of capacity for familial love. We know he is a man of substance and depth from the music he studies and enjoys, including jazz compositions by Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor.

Desplechin’s domestic train wreck is all too believable, particularly because it resists explaining every little behavioral quirk. People hold grudges and blow each other off for reasons that remain obscure. That’s life. Catherine Deneuve is perfectly cast as Junon, the Mother of the Year. As Henri, Mathieu Almaric deftly portrays a multi-faceted character who is simultaneously charming, boorish, self-destructive, and passive aggressive. Not exactly comic relief, as Faunia, Emmanuelle Devos effectively provides an ironic vantage point on Vuillard family reunion.

Tale is a smart drama, but it is about as much a Christmas film as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The holiday is an obligation for the Vuillards, not a celebration. While Tale might sound depressing, Desplechin strings together one fascinating scene after another, making it’s nearly two and a half hour running seem much quicker. It opens today in the City, at the IFC Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza.