Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” – 2008 New York Film Festival Review

The holiday family reunion from hell has been the subject of many films that appear during the Christmas season, and most of them are rote, cookie-cutter and quite forgettable. Not so with Arnaud Desplechin’s new film “A Christmas Tale,” which is stuffed to the gills with the messy conflicts of the large family at its center.

Much like his previous films, especially the brilliant “Kings and Queen,” Desplechin has a unique ability to mix pathos, slapstick humor, and high drama from scene to scene, sometimes even within the same scene. And although his new film doesn’t mix the ingredients quite as smoothly, it is still beautifully structured and as absorbing as a great novel.

“Every minute, four ideas,” is the way Desplechin describes his films, and this certainly holds true for “A Christmas Tale.” The family in this film is rocked by the early death of the eldest son from leukemia; this disease is the phantom that haunts the family, and it mirrors the sickness that exists among the familial relationships depicted here. The matriarch Junon (a deliciously brittle Catherine Deneuve) is suffering from a rare form of leukemia that can only be cured by a bone marrow transfusion from one of her relatives. Two of her children, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), have become mortal enemies, so much so that Elizabeth, fed up with Henri’s dissolute ways and abrasive behavior, banishes him from the family after paying off his debts one last time. Elizabeth’s son Paul (Emile Berling) is an emotional wreck who is on many types of medication and is prone to outbursts during which he brandishes a knife. Elizabeth and Henri’s brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and their cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) also bring their own respective issues.

Over the course of two and a half hours, we are drawn into the thick web of this family’s fights, secrets and conflicts. The film beautifully captures the insanity and messiness that occurs in families in general, and more than a few viewers will recognize some of their own family members (and, if they’re honest, themselves) in the characters here. Desplechin sometimes overreaches and tries to pack a little too much in his scenario, sometimes to the point where it is a bit overwhelming. But “A Christmas Tale” is a film that bursts with life, and in the end it is quite mesmerizing.

As always, Desplechin assembles a great cast, and he gives all his actors plenty of room to shine. As in “Kings and Queen,” the ace in Desplechin’s deck is Amalric, who as Henri, a man with the special talent to offend and alienate everyone around him with the most inappropriate comment or gesture, essays the role of his unhinged character, a walking id run amok, with wonderful comic and dramatic timing.

“A Christmas Tale,” an IFC Films release, screened at the 2008 New York Film Festival and is in theaters now.