A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël)
It’s really frustrating to me when a trailer advertises one movie, and then I go to the theater and get something else entirely. However, in the case of A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), I was immensely pleased. I went in expecting a light-hearted French comedy, and got one of the most interesting character studies of the year.
The parallels between Tale and The Royal Tennenbaums is remarkable. Both take place mostly at a stately home in a large city. The family members are remarkably intelligent, but plagued with personal manias and problems. They can both probably be referred to as Neo-New French Wave (the odd love triangle, addressing the camera, narration). Pretty much A Christmas Tale is the grown-up version of Wes Anderson’s piece.
Catherine Deneuve (Dancer in the Dark) plays Junon, the mother of a large and odd family. She’s been diagnosed with a degenerative bone cancer and needs a marrow transplant to prolong her quickly approaching death. None of her children are compatible except, ironically, Henri (played by Mathieu Amalric, a role that suits him much better than the villian in Quantum of Solace). Henri is the family fuck-up that has been banished for years by his own melancholic sister (a terrific Anne Consigny). A sister who, despite being a successful playwright, glories in self-pity, watching herself cry, and making others sad too. There are more characters than you can easily count. And for the most part, they’re all well developed, with a few small exceptions.
Like I mentioned earlier, the trailer is deceiving. Even the title is deceiving as this movie isn’t about Christmas. The film spans several subjects from mental illness, death, religion, betrayal, to physical illness (there are a few short scenes concerning the bone marrow transplant that made me look away from the screen). The best part, is that it’s not sensational. The characters act like your family members act at holiday family gatherings. It’s much more about what’s going on in these peoples’ minds, than about anything else. Director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote the script with Emmanuel Bourdieu) was inspired with this film. He masterfully controlled his actors, and created a story that won’t quickly leave you. Some of the most touching moments are when the characters are allowed to address the screen to explain situations, or read a private letter to another character. These scenes are brilliant. They’re emotionally raw, just like the characters. You couldn’t have asked for a better ensemble cast either. While this isn’t a light piece, you’ll still walk away from it feeling uplifted, and with a whole lot to chew on during the drive home.