For an outsider, Christmas feels more like fairytale than religious obligation. It places the observant at the center of a children’s story in setting and in mindset—liberation from the laws of nature and reason, transformation of physical dimensions (a tree in the house, a man down the chimney) and spiritual entities (a god becomes a man). The holiday’s first requirement, then, is a suspension of skepticism. Its mythos gains purchase by its miracles, suggesting that wonder is the seductive path to belief.
Armed with this knowledge, Arnaud Desplechin begins his A Christmas Tale(Un conte de Noël) with the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture,” a fittingly allusive score. For Desplechin’s film is Romantic and Shakespearean and unifies a multiplicity of plotlines and temperaments, fantastic and earthly, classical and contemporary, through enchantment. Even as the director chapters his film according to the holiday’s religious obligations, he makes Christmas a conceit. Like beginning a tale with “Once upon a time…”, setting a film at Christmas bestows a liberation from mundanity.
A movie about Christmas is a movie about rituals as well as magic. Reenactment of the holiday becomes a sort of repetition compulsion, reconstructing a past that may never have been. Because it is a holiday about generations—the adults manufacture a story that the children delight or disappoint in—it’s a particularly good way to tell the tale of a family.
The story of the Vuillards is front-loaded by two losses. The eldest sibling dies of a rare blood disease and the three remaining children mature in the shadow of his mortality and the same genetic threat. The next eldest, Elizabeth rankles in a cloud of sorrow and malice; Henri, conceived in hopes that his stem cells might offer a cure, adopts the mantle of disappointment as a survival strategy; the youngest, Yvan, enjoys the privileges of arriving last and most beautiful—his mildness and good temper are commensurate with a life that was seemingly handed to him.
The titles employ Balinese puppets to depict the birth and death of the unseen Vuillard, Joseph, then quickly time jump years later, when Elizabeth, an accomplished playwright, petitions the courts to banish her brother from the family. “He is twisted and ordinary. Banal, like the devil.” Somehow in grief, Elizabeth views Henri as a golem—created in service of other human life but thwarting that life, monstrous. The Vuillards accommodate Henri’s excommunication for many years (Elizabeth has a financial leverage over her brother) until Junon’s illness overrides Elizabeth’s statutes against Henri.
In the film’s opening chapters, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) collapses while preparing tea and soon discovers an illness is the cause: she suffers the same genetic disorder as her deceased son. In an undetermined but assuredly brief number of years, the syndrome will transform to leukemia and result in her death. Now the task is to discover which course of treatment will prolong her life. Religious faith is something that the Vuillards do not seem to have—if they believe, it is in the extremity of their intellectual lives and the intensity of their subjective experiences. They come together to solve the problem of their mother’s life as much as to celebrate the birth of Jesus. If Desplechin’s My Golden Days is his answer to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom—an attempt to speak to a young generation about coming of age—Un Conte de Noel is his Royal Tenenbaums, depicting a clutch of gifted and tormented adult siblings drawn together by a parent’s crisis.
They approach the crisis of Junon’s illness as an elaborate science problem, gathering in a room with a chalkboard on which they scribble equations to measure their mother’s chance of survival. Every proposed step becomes a matter of percentages: not taking treatment ensures death; finding a compatible marrow donor is unlikely (from Junon’s direct descendants, the chances are 1 in 16 at best); even if found, the matter of host accepting transplant is treacherous—her body could reject the marrow and burn Junon from the inside.
Employing a star, you could argue, is as proscriptive as religious observation. They arrive with expectation and mandate, and any deviation from the accreted screen history is a gamble. We are drawn to them because they are recognizable. Maybe the most marked and remarkable trait of modern French women onscreen is the absence of melodrama (see: stoic Huppert, or even the more emotionally available Binoche). Catherine Deneuve compels or comforts because of a now-familiar sang froid—her perfectly composed face encountering a crisis of heart, mind, or body. Even in films like Belle de jour, in which her character engages in degrading fantasies, or is punished as the villain (The Hunger), she remains, somehow, coolly intact.
But for a star to remain potent and alive, she needs to understand how popular conception can be toyed with or upended, reified through dialectics rather than through repetition. And Desplechin is singularly good at finding new uses for storied actors. In his earlier film Rois et reine, he engages Deneuve as psychiatrist to Amalric’s asylum inmate. Finding Deneuve in the most passive onscreen vocation—professional listener—Amalric puts to her the question of whether women have souls. He has an elaborate logic behind his supposition (women do not engage with questions of Being, in his estimation). Deneuve has a many-layered response to this nonsense, amusement and offense buttressed by her sheer stolidity. In much of her career, Deneuve’s characters inhabit the illicit or the extraordinary, it is therefore captivating to find her stillness and glamour lodged unexpectedly. In A Christmas Tale, we see a goddess in her domestic life: clipping laundry to a line, making tea, comforting her frog-like husband while maintaining a reserved distance from her real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, here playing Junon’s daughter-in-law.
Still, despite this untroubled intimacy, Desplechin is wise enough to know the threat of a star’s death, even in fictive form, destabilizes a story’s universe, setting off reactions that must be managed so that the universe does not collapse. Here the characters scramble to arrive at an effective course of treatment that will prolong her life—both to save their mother and to preserve the tenuous order they’ve found in adulthood. But it’s too late; by drawing the Vuillards together, they change and mark each other. It’s an opportunity to revisit history, their self-conception and performance, and the relationship that needs the most revision is the family and its black sheep, Henri.
Matthieu Amalric often plays director Desplechin’s cinematic avatar. The actor’s ferrety looks and squinty intelligence are the ideal carapace for the director’s existential preoccupations: petty punishments, defended certainty, unchecked appetites, rampant intellectualism as defense against the anxiety of being. As Henri, Almaric bristles with the mania of the born-again or the heretic. He comforts his emotionally-fragile nephew, excusing his mental illness because, “your mother conceived you in grief.” He refuses to call Junon “mother.” He announces he will remarry his girlfriend without asking her. He assails his sister’s mental health and marriage. There is very little to love in his words or actions—all the sympathy in the character comes from his embodiment by the actor, and he is deeply sympathetic despite all this.
“You have always been a little bit Jewish. Mon petit juif,” Junon says lightly to Henri. His mother does not explain her meaning—is it Henri’s looks or attitudes, his habit of giving cash instead of gifts, his brainy Jewish girlfriend who prefers to read the papers on Christmas Day, that make him a bit Jewish? Whatever the cause, it’s an accusation and acknowledgement of some implicit bias within the family and within the culture. In French, le petit juif is an idiom for what Anglophones call the “funny bone.” Henri, in other words, causes a jarring kind of pain. He is the flash point and sensitive spot in this family of prodigies and neurotics. He provokes and is provoked. He is comedic and venomous, unreasonable and hyper-rational, put-upon but offensive to everyone he loves. Naturally, he is the child who has compatible marrow for his mother—in the course of the story he is transmogrified from monster to wounded healer.
“We do not know ourselves, we are not seekers of knowledge about ourselves,” Abel reads from Nietzsche as an admission and a warning to his daughter. The camera pans across the German text and Abel translates it for us. Like the artisan father in Un conte de Noel, Desplechin is a master of embroidery—his concern, as much as the alchemical reactions within this family, is the fabric of cinema. He makes a patchwork of artistic textures—intellectual, visual, auditory. One of the greatest pleasures of Desplechin’s films is how he layers in old school hip-hop—here, smartly appointing Yvan as DJ, to make Blackalicious and Mr. J Madeiros part of the action as well as the soundtrack. And Desplechin edits the way a DJ samples—gestural shots overlay one another.
While many movies stoke narrative momentum by restricting character history and motivation to dialogue, Desplechin vivifies them, employing narration and direct address (a cherished technique shows a letter-writer speaking his words to the camera). His works collect ensembles of characters, tenuously connected by blood or by shared history even as they chafe against the conventions of those links. Desplechin is therefore a proponent of the literary approach to cinema. (It should be noted that Desplechin has a gift for giving his characters literary names—here, they are mythic and biblical in quality: Junon (as in Jupiter’s wife) and Faunia. A recurring character, Paul Dedalus, is absent here, but Henri’s nephew is called Paul.)
One of Despechin’s favorite scenes in cinema is a clip from 90s romance Notting Hill, an unlikely enthusiasm for a director whose novelistic works hardly resemble Richard Curtis’s comedic souffles. (Although this underplays the accomplishments of that film, directed with remarkable delicacy by Roger Michell.) The morning after Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant have fallen into bed, Grant’s character marvels at his intimacy with the most world-famous actress of his time, who he learns is also merely a woman, fleshly loveliness, lying next to him. “What is the big deal about breasts? Every second person in the world has a pair of them.” Roberts asks, and Grant says, I can’t think, lifts up the covers and peers at what the blanket conceals—presumably Roberts’ bare or partially covered breasts.
Desplechin explains the genius of the scene, and thereby identifies the function of cinema—it offers access not just to a voyeuristic experience (what is it like to be in bed with a beautiful actor) but also a virtual reality of the mind. At its best, cinema is about the interpolation between what’s shown and what’s experienced. Here, Grant gets to look at Roberts’ breasts, but the audience does not. Preserving her modesty at once protects her and solidifies the audience’s imaginative attachment to the film; what isn’t shown activates the imagination. By keeping us a bit like Henri, le petit juif, outside the family and apart from their Christmas holiday, but wanting in, Desplechin grants us a kind of cinematic synesthesia, where one experience both denies and imbues us, the audience, with new imaginative powers.