Sometimes bad blood is a metaphor, sometimes it's literal. In the Vuillard family, they have both kinds and plenty of it.
Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a multi-leveled yet somehow easily assembled family drama that tracks the Vuillards over the course of four days, December 22nd through 25th--not including the considerable history they bring with them to their holiday celebration. Desplechin sets the table for this feast in the very first scenes, using cut-out puppet theatre to catch us up on the family dynamic. The heads of the clan are Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who is in the fabric dye business, and Junon (Catherine Deneuve). They had four children together, though their oldest, Jonathan, died of a rare condition when very young. Neither his parents nor his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) could offer him the transfusion he needed, and even little Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was tested in the womb to see if he could help. No dice, Jonathan passed, and his specter has haunted the family ever since, particularly settling on Henri, who was born right at the same time, yet somehow leaving the next down the line, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), alone.
When A Christmas Tale picks up in real life and real time, the kids have grown up and mother Junon has been diagnosed with a cancer much like Jonathan's. Once again, there is a scramble to find matching marrow. There are complications, however, Henri has been in exile for six years, his sister having banished him in return for assuming his debts. He is a drinker and a screw-up, and everyone else has gone along with Elizabeth even though they don't have any idea why she chose to be so extreme. Henri is about to return to the family, joining them for Christmas, a move largely precipitated by Elizabeth's teenage son Paul (Emile Berling). Paul has recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, apparently at the same age that Ivan had similar mental problems. It would appear that when it comes time to fill out a hospital form, the Vuillard's can check "yes" next to "a history of mental illness."
There are a lot of narrative threads criss-crossing one another in A Christmas Tale, but Desplechin, who co-wrote the movie with Emmanuel Bourdieu, is careful never to get them tangled. Both Paul and Henri test positive as bone marrow donors for Junon, and this draws a connection between the three generations. These are the three outcasts, in a way, all on the outs due to their various illnesses, and events tend to morph around them. How the family deals with each other is based on their moods, their needs. This could be the reason for Elizabeth's jealousy, and it also allows a safe space for a side drama to play out. Ivan's wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), apparently had a love affair with Henri first, and there were also sparks between her and their cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). As it turns out, the three boys chose between them who would end up with her, and it makes Sylvia question her time with Ivan and how much she has been the master of her own destiny.
There is a preciousness to A Christmas Tale's construction that seemed familiar to me, and it struck me midway through that it felt like I was watching a French version of The Royal Tenenbaums. I am not sure I would have ended up being able to scratch that mental itch had not Arnaud Desplechin recently interviewed Wes Anderson for Interview magazine. Their conversation revealed a camaraderie and similar interests in narrative and films. I'm not going to hazard to say it's intentional, but the similarities are fascinating. Both films deal with the reunion of a troubled family at the home where all the kids grew up. The children are all creative, though with divergent passions and personalities; the lone sister among the boys is a playwright. Mental illness and death hang around like a black cloud, sometimes baffling the two young, identical-looking nephews. There is an outsider who wishes to be accepted as more of a family member, one whose substance abuse leads to violent episodes, and who is in love with one of the women of the family. (Though Simon is tame compared to Eli Cash.) Likewise, there is even some question as to whether or not something sexual occurred between Henri and Elizabeth, a la Richie and Margot. There are also aesthetic parallels, including the drawings of the wolf that lives in the basement and the hand-crafted playbill for the Christmas Eve performance. The use of title cards to mark time and divide the film into chapters remind us that the movie is dramatic artifice the way they did in Tenenbaums, and Desplechin takes that a step further by regularly employing an iris effect to suggest nostalgia for older films, memory, and even a little voyeurism. The times where he has characters read their letters aloud directly into the camera are also reminiscent of Anderson's voiceovers and use of montage.
It makes for interesting food for thought, comparing the two, though beyond these surface points, A Christmas Tale is very much its own thing. The direct connection of mother and son when it comes time for the transplant is more concrete than anything in Anderson's film, and it's not much of a fix. Henri and Junon openly have a distaste for one another, and neither are that interested in correcting that. Family is something you take as is in Desplechin's world, there is no repairing it. The schism between Henri and Elizabeth also goes far deeper, and the truth behind that rift is never revealed. Though we see the physical evidence of it in the form of a letter, that is one piece of mail that Henri chooses not to read. If The Royal Tenenbaums is musical theatre, A Christmas Tale is literary drama.
The acting in A Christmas Tale is electric from start to finish. Catherine Deneuve is fierce and commanding as the matriarch, her steely influence holding sway over everything. At one point, Henri basically says that how much any one person can get away with is directly related to how much they can insist on others liking them; Junon can get away with anything and everything, as she demands everyone's allegiance. As that wise but unpredictable son, Mathieu Amalric consistently either disproves or proves his character's theory, I'm not sure which. His kinetic, wiry style consistently pulls the camera his way. He can take it over the top when called for, but his best moment comes at the Christmas toast, when he must pull everything back in, firing off one last salvo before passing out. I'd much rather see him in stuff like this and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly than wasting his talents as some one-note James Bond villain. I also quite liked Chiara Mastroianni in this film, and am happy to see her in something good rather than just doing her best to stay afloat in crap like Christophe Honoré's Love Songs.
In terms of holiday movies, A Christmas Tale hits some major points. It's about family coming together, and it's about a hope for a better tomorrow that comes through reconciling the past. There are also elements of magic that tie into psychosis, something we see in films as far flung in time as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Bergman's Fanny & Alexander (here, it's Paul's visions). Arnaud Desplechin is playing it a little coy at the finish. The final scene between Henri and Junon ends with raised eyebrows and a question, and the very end of the film has Elizabeth quoting Shakespeare, wondering if anything is truly mended or if this dream merely cycles into another one. Whether or not you walk away from that deciding A Christmas Tale reaches a positive or negative conclusion is down to you. It's how you choose to make your own peace that makes all the difference, something that puts you right in line with the Vuillard family dynamic.
In 2007, Desplechin made an hour-long documentary called L'aimee (Beloved). Included here, it is an interesting glimpse on the life that informed A Christmas Tale. The director began by making a film about his father selling the house he grew up in, but it soon turns into a journey of father and son through the family records. Specifically, they explore their connections to the matriarchs in their family, discussing the elder Desplechin's grandmother, biological mother, and adopted mother. Arnaud's own mother has passed away, and he is curious about the history of the Desplechin women. A journal and letters from his grandmother lead them to sort through the life she lived. She was a nurse who later suffered and died in a sanitarium, quarantined from her son. There is a respect for the incredible ladies that came before them, as well as a distance, and it sheds a lot of light on what went into the script for A Christmas Tale.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.