Pick a film by Arnaud Desplechin, and likely as not you’ll find a house full of labile French hobgoblins stewing volubly over old wounds and inflicting new ones where they hurt most. Elegantly worded internecine warfare defines family in the Desplechin canon, and in his ecstatically bitchy new film, A Christmas Tale, the unwieldy clan is a prime specimen of the breed. Gathering for the winter holidays at the provincial table of their coolly ironic matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and her loving husband, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the Vuillards are a walking tragedy dressed up as farce (you can’t tell which is which in a Desplechin film), bound together and torn apart by one of the hoariest old gambits in the history of cheesy movie metaphors — bad blood.
Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia, which also killed her firstborn son, Joseph, when he was 7 years old. Only her bad egg of a son, Henri (played by the feverishly wild-eyed Matthieu Amalric, a frequent alter ego for the director), and her emotionally frail grandson, Paul (Emile Berling), have the compatible bone marrow Junon needs. The catch is that the transplant is as likely to destroy her as it is to cure her. Which is about as visceral an expression of ambivalence toward the mother as I can think of. And why not, given exchanges like this one:
Henri: Still don't love me?
Junon: Never did.
Henri: Me neither.
Or this one between Junon and her daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a brooding playwright and helicopter parent to the neurasthenic Paul, who literally banished Henri from the family five years earlier. Trying to decide who will be her marrow donor, Junon calmly drops another bomb: “Henri comes from my womb. I’m taking back what’s mine.” She calls Henri “my little Jew” for bringing home the Jewish girlfriend (Emmanuelle Devos) who laughs when she shouldn’t and won’t take shit from anyone, least of all him or his mother. There are warmer ancillary characters who bring a saving tenderness — a pacific younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who’s married to the lovely Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, an enchanting combo of her devilish father and the bountifully statuesque Deneuve), for whom their gentle, alcoholic cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) has forever carried a torch. But even they are swimming in a psychological dis-ease that unites and threatens to flatten them.
Followed by Desplechin’s restless camera, they roam the house, which is at once a lived-in haven and a mausoleum filled with the relics of past battles and shifting alliances. Their endless groupings and regroupings, their brief encounters and power struggles are framed by an armory of cinematic devices that will be familiar to any Desplechin devotee. One character turns to the camera to recite a letter he may or may not have written. Another sees in a mirror his own reflection — now cunning, now bereft — and grasps his own possibilities for the first time. There are intertitles and cutout silhouettes, and a million references to other films both high and low, perhaps more than this already crowded, ceaselessly gabby scenario needs. Desplechin calls his company Why Not Productions: Kitchen Sink would serve just as well.
So by all means, go to A Christmas Tale, forewarned and forearmed with a working knowledge of Bergman, Rohmer, Truffaut, The Royal Tenenbaums and Home for the Holidays, as well as a batch of European poets, playwrights and philosophers you probably haven’t read in a long while. They’re all in there, and you can spend the movie decoding to your little hipster’s heart’s content — or you can sit back and absorb, knowing that Desplechin asks of his audience only an open mind and a receptivity to constant redefinition of the situation. Who and what are these people to one another, and what is Joseph — beyond a shaping abstraction who couldn’t be saved — to them? Every question elicits five more, but don’t mistake this movie for one of those mawkish domestic autopsies that begins with a gasp-inducing revelation from a designated black sheep and ends with a group hug and a voice-over whining on about how family relations are all very complex. They surely are, and there surely is rapprochement in A Christmas Tale — there’s even a sage in Abel, a man so homely and carbuncled that even he calls himself an “old toad” — but the tone is one of palate-cleansing astringency. The old toad has seen everything and lost much, and may yet lose more before the curtain goes down. But he knows that in the end, it’s not truth or insight or self-knowledge that all these walking wounded (or any of us) are striving for but, as he so beautifully tells his daughter, a way of “bringing something home.”
A CHRISTMAS TALE | Directed by ARNAUD DESPLECHIN | Written by DESPLECHIN and EMMANUEL BOURDIEU | Produced by PASCAL CAUCHETEAUX | Released by IFC Films | The Landmark, Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5