As Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale began, I was reminded of the mockumentary For Your Consideration, in which Christopher Guest and his troupe picked on independent dramatic films. Their target was (yet another) film about a family reuniting at the holidays and working though their differences. I was immediately put on guard against schmaltz and sentimentality.
Luckily, any schmaltz in A Christmas Tale is offset with a dash of irony, and the sentimentality is limited to one character who wears it very well.
Mathieu Amalric ( The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) plays Henri, the middle child of his parents (played by Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Roussillon). There are a dozen or more primary characters (Henri’s siblings, and their spouses and children), but as the black sheep Henri makes a nice focal point.
He has come home to Roubaix for Christmas in spite of a serious falling-out with his sister. The house is crowded, and perhaps it’s because the family knows that the matriarch is dying. The diagnosis is terminal, although perhaps someone who is a match can donate some bone marrow and prolong her life another couple of years.
Desplechin gives each character plenty of screen time, rather than just throwing bodies at the screen. Yet there are still many names and faces to keep straight, and there’s not a clean, clear story arc that the characters are subservient to. In that, it feels like a genuine whirlwind family reunion.
Black Sheep, Black Sheep
The highlights of the film are the characters themselves, rather than the story. The black sheep has been badmouthed by his sister. He doesn’t really know why, and he almost doesn’t care. He accepts his role as the black sheep and is perhaps even flattered by it; he’s happy to play up his evil side in order to fill the role. There are some touching moments when he speaks with his mother about being the least-favorite son. There’s a cold, ironic honesty to their conversation, as though mom agrees that he is her least favorite. Yet they are both so sophisticated and jaded that they seem to be having fun knowing that their conversation would shock the average mother and son.
On the other end of the spectrum is the family patriarch, the character who wears sentimentality well. He keeps the keep good humor for the whole family, while they each fight their little battles.
American audiences might find the ending — or rather, the lack of a story arc — unsatisfying. But if you’re up for two and a half hours of engrossing drama and likeable but flawed characters, add A Christmas Tale to your wish list.