What do the holidays mean to a family when one of their own is dying? Writer and Director Arnaud Desplechin tackles this question head on in A Christmas Tale, French imported Dramedy. The result is a well written and perfectly acted tale of a family making the most of the Christmas despite the fact that one of their own may not make it past two years.
Screen Legend Catherine Deneuve stars as Junon, the matriarch of the Vulliard family. She is preparing breakfast as usual when she feels herself getting woozy and falls to the floor. She has degenerative bone cancer and may not live more than two years. She will need a bone marrow transplant for any chance of survival, and one family member could be a possible donor. “This cancer is reuniting the family” quips Junon. And just in time for Christmas.
But each family member is dealing with their own problems. Their eldest Elizabeth’s (Anne Cossingy) son Paul (Emile Berling) has suffered a nervous breakdown. Their middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) has been forced into exile by Elizabeth, who has nothing but contempt for him. Their youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) has married his sweetheart Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), even though his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) loves her too. Now they must get together and overcome their difference for the sake of their mother.
After all these years, Deneuve is still beautiful. Whether she’s sitting down to dinner or sitting in a hospital bed, every scene with her is shot beautifully. Plus, she has a great ability to say a lot with the smallest expression. This is clearest in scenes when she ponders to herself as she walks amongst family members conversing.
Every actor meets her more than half way, especially amongst each other. Each one has a feel of history to them, aware of a specific flaw and virtue, loving each other even when mocking them. But one performance that deserves mention is Roussillon’s performance as the patriarch trying to keep everyone together. Whether he’s howling at an imaginary wolf with the kids or trying to talk his daughter out of banishing Henri (“What you’re asking for cannot be done. We’re family”) there is never a phony moment in his performance. Plus, he has the funniest lines in the movie (“I will spank you so hard that even death will run away”).
There are some problems. First is the relationship between Henri and Elizabeth. Elizabeth has so much contempt for Henri, she admits that “I delight in his demise” but it’s never clear why. Even the characters are asking this question. It’s implied it’s due to a debt but it’s implied that the contempt was around even before. And of course, there’s the smoking, a lot of smoking. OK, this is not a problem, but it’s surprising no one got lung cancer just from watching this movie. Even the DVD cover has cigarette smoke forming a Christmas tree.
Despite the subject matter and these little problems, the film never comes off as depressing. Quite the contrary, it creates a feeling of cautionary hope. Most of the scenes are of a family making the most of the holiday with their own traditions, from the classic dinner and watching a holiday film to putting on a small play and fireworks. In a way, it shows how potentially tragic circumstances can make the holidays feel all the more special. This film was a runner up for the Cannes Film Festival Palm D’or but it also deserves an annual holiday viewing alongside such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story.