Coming home for the holidays often carries with it a good deal of emotional subtext, and Arnaud Desplechin mines those feelings for all they’re worth in A Christmas Tale (2008), a dense, character-driven, ensemble piece that nonetheless carries with it the lightest touch of a mesmerizing fantasy (not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander). There’s a simple story at the heart of this tale, but Desplechin weaves together so many elements that it’s nearly unthinkable to digest it all in the first viewing.
The brilliant Catherine Deneuve stars as the matriarch of the Vuillard family, Junon. Unsentimental and rarely emotional, Junon learns she has a rare form of cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant that must come from a blood relative. Decades earlier, her firstborn son died of the same disease.
Now, with Christmas approaching, the family members gather at the Vuillard home in the midst of getting tested for their transplant compatibility. Junon’s cancer notwithstanding, the mood is already tumultuous thanks to the hostility between oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric). Junon has banished Henri from the family, but he shows up for Christmas anyway, one of the few who’s a match to be a donor.
Youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), Henri’s girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Elizabeth’s troubled son Paul (Emile Berling), and kindly patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) fill in the rest of the cracks and crevices of this tangled family history.
Desplechin shoots his scenes with supreme confidence, and he deftly balances this large cast in a way that coaxes outstanding performances (Deneuve, Amalric, and Mastroianni are all superb) without losing anyone in the shuffle. Conversely, A Christmas Tale is a sprawling, untidy heft of a film, but that’s hardly a criticism — since when has interacting with family, especially one this large, been a neat affair?
Dysfunctional family comedies and dramedies have been done again and again, often with them having some new motive for being put in the same house (think The Royal Tenenbaums, The Family Stone, Dan in Real Life), but Desplechin rarely feels the need to dwell on the dysfunction — look at how messed up, yet hilarious these people are! A Christmas Tale is both much more matter-of-fact and much more mysterious, using the dysfunction as a starting point rather than some kind of punchline.
Part of a recently minted deal with IFC Films, the Criterion Collection’s release of A Christmas Tale isn’t exactly overflowing with supplements — especially considering the DVD is a two-disc affair — but the quality is undeniable. With only the film on disc one, disc two contains L'Aimée, an hour-long documentary from 2007 that Desplechin shot about the sale of his family home — its inspiration for elements of A Christmas Tale are obvious — and a substantial featurette with interviews from Desplechin, Deneuve, and Amalric. The original theatrical trailer and the American release trailer are also included. A booklet with an essay by critic Phillip Lopate rounds out the set.
Some have decried the recent spate of contemporary films appearing on the Criterion label, especially with plenty notable older films still not getting the treatment, but A Christmas Tale is the perfect example of why there ought to always be room on the Criterion enthusiast’s shelf for the studio’s newer selections.