It seems that modern French film makers drift closer to the pretension/art divide than most others would dare. They can be utterly fearless. Perhaps it stems from the New Wave's perchance for flaunting convention at every turn. This is the culture that gave us Godard after all. Directed and co-written by Arnaud Desplechin, A Christmas Tale played, not surprisingly, to a mixture of rave and slightly befuddled critical reviews last year and then took it's sweet, bloody time getting to DVD. It is a fascinating (and admittedly, at times bewildering) film that seems to exist almost outside the standard conventions of modern film making. It is an unusual film experience because it just doesn't do or go where you might expect it to. I oscillated between liking it, being mesmerized by it and not knowing what to make of it, in approximately equal measures. Most of the major critics adored it but I'm not sure how well it will play with mainstream audiences. It is a complex and highly challenging film.
The plot revolves around Junon, the matriarch of a quirky grown-up French provincial family, played with an icy precision by the always excellent Catherine Deneuve. Junon is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant from a family member with matching.... ah, marrowness, I guess. Past conflicts and family dysfunction has left two of the children (and by extension the entire family) estranged and Junon's medical need is the catalyst needed to have everyone return to the family home for perhaps their last Christmas together. What sounds like a recipe for teary-eyed reunions, heartfelt reconciliations and depressing reflections on broken families is nothing but. We're given ample opportunity over the film's 150 minute running time to get to know the large cast of characters that make up the extended Vuillard family... and they are not an easy bunch.
Imagine the Royal Tenenbaums as Douglas Sirk (or David Lean) might have directed it and you begin to get a feel for what Desplechin does with A Christmas Tale. This is a film distinctively and exclusively made for adults with lofty references to everyone from Emerson, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, Nietzsche and a host of others I'm sure I missed. It's an incredibly dense film (and I mean that in a good way) that probably needs more than one viewing to absorb in its entirety. I came away from my first pass oddly bedeviled by it, satisfied but reeling and as I continue to reflect on it, I'm beginning to think of it as one of the year's best films. At times, it flirts with arty pretension but as a whole, this is an accomplished piece of superior film making. It raises the bar, something I'm constantly bitching about but don't quite know how to manage when I finally get it. I've always had difficulty citing examples of films that are truly cinematic when someone pitches The Dark Knight as an example of great film making. A Christmas Tale is just that kind of film. Intellectual, real and raw in ways that even the best Hollywood films can never seem to deliver on.
I hope I haven't made the film sound too inaccessible because it isn't. It's long but there are darkly comic moments, several interesting and relevant subplots weaving in and out of the main story line, family secrets revealed and a Papa that seems a character straight out of the Triplets of Bellville. It was nominated for a huge array of European film awards and won a few of them. The further I get from it, the more I want to go back and give it a second look. A Christmas Tale is a chaotic, unsettling, emotionally rich and cinematically thrilling film. It sports a terrific score - an elegant mix of standards, classics and original music by Gregoire Hetzel, amazing acting by everyone involved and the director's deft touch at showing human life with all its moments of edgy irrationality and gentle sweetness.
It's a toss up right now between Il Divo, 35 Shots of Rhum, Let the Right One In and now, A Christmas Tale for my pick as the year's best release.