“Un conte de Noël” (A Christmas Tale, 2008) fits solidly into the genre of movies about families with unresolved issues returning home for Yuletide. Running152 minutes, the first 15-20 minutes are devoted to providing background. The parents, Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who owns a dye factory, housewife Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) are haunted by the death of the first son of leukemia at the age of six, following an unsuccessful search for a compatible bone-marrow donor. Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was in utreo at the time, and seems to have spent his lifetime acting out from the lack of love he received as a child.
Henri says that he tormented his older sister from when he was 5 until he was 17, though I’d make that 43. Five years before the Christmas in question, Elizabeth paid off a fraud of Henri’s on condition that she never have to see him again, so he was banished from family events.
The regal Junon now needs a bone-marrow donor, and, you guessed it, Henri is a match. The only other one is Elizabeth’s 15-year-old son Paul a lonely boy who has just been institutionalized for a psychotic break. Elizabeth sends Paul (to Christie’s) to invite Henri to the Christmas gathering
The baby of the family, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, with his usual stubble and one of the ugliest sweaters I’ve ever seen) reaches out to Paul, recalling a breakdown of his own when he was 15. Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, real-life daughter of Deneuve by Marcello Mastroianni and in real life has long been a close friend of Poupaud) have sons, Baile and Baptiste, I’d guess to be 6 and 4.
Henri arrives a day (well, late night) earlier than announced with a woman whose derrière is twice compared to Angela Bassett’s. Junon tells Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) that she likes her for taking the child she doesn’t like (while resenting Sylvia for taking he favorite).
Also along for the ride (first the train, then the week in Roubaix (60 km. north of Paris, close to the Belgian border), is Junon’s nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a painter. For the Christmas Eve fireworks (literal fireworks) and feast, Abel’s mother’s lover, Rosaimée (Françoise Bertin) is on hand… and the source of information that stuns Sylvia.
Henri and Simon have drinking problems. Henri is aggressive with or without alcohol; Simon gets into fights when he drinks. Elizabeth’s loathing for Henri has not abated, and if it had, he does everything he can to reignite it.
Junon has not decided to have the bone marrow transplant, which has a 35% chance of killing her (in contrast to a 95% chance that she will begin having symptoms of degenerative disease within a few months). Henri’s matricidal fantasies increase her reluctance. Elizabeth wants Paul to provide the bone marrow, demonstrating courage he could be proud of and making her line the one to save Junon.
Various characters learn various things about themselves and the family past, the youngsters put on a play they have written (Elizabeth has had five plays produced), three of the assembled host go to midnight mass, an infidelity is taken in stride. I guess there are low-key epiphanies, but the kind of life-changing transformations one gets in Hollywood Christmas movies do not occur.
The movie is long and complicated enough without any siblings of Abel or Junon and their offspring involved (except for Simon). Laurence Briaud (who also edited the 2.5-hour 2004 “Rois et reine” with Deneuveand Roussillon for Desplechin) uses far too many jump cuts IMO. That musical styles shift radically with each jump makes sure no one misses the radical jumps.
Deneuve and Amalric have the showiest parts and make the most of them. Roussillon and Poupaud are very sympathetic good fathers, not getting upset by the shenanigans of the other characters. And Emile Berling (L’heure d’été) is very good as Paul, with no one close in age to him, but with uncles reaching out to him.
A second disc of the Criterion edition includes the original French theatrical trailer, a 35-minutes making-of featurette and an hour-long documentary, “L’aimée” about the sale of the house (in Roubaix) in which Arnaud Desplechin grew up and his relations with his parents.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray