A Heightened Holiday Melodrama: A Christmas Tale (2008)
Around this time of year, cinephiles and film lovers watch films related to winter holidays. Some of the most popular ones are films where people get together to hash out old issues with relatives they haven’t seen in years. These films can be both serious and funny, but usually maintain a comfortable aesthetic to temper the domestic dramas. Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 A Christmas Tale (Un conte de noel) is a fairly standard holiday dramedy… only amplified to experimental melodrama. The film stars Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch who gathers her family together for the holidays and reckons with her relationship to her kids.
Junon (Deneuve) is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her relatives. Along with her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), Junon gathers her family together: bitter eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and her husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) with their depressed son Paul (Emile Berling); Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who was mysteriously banished from the family by Elizabeth, and his Jewish girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos); son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni); and cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), who harbors a crush on Sylvia. These tangled, complicated relationships lead to fights, awkward silences, confessions, and even some cautious bonding.
The main source of tension is that Junon and Abel’s oldest son Joseph died from leukemia at age six. The other children were conceived partly to be bone marrow donors. But this failed, and Joseph died. The gaping hole that Joseph left caused resentment between the children and the parents, especially Junon, and between the siblings themselves. A Christmas Tale’s dramatic crux is one of unspeakable tragedy, one that is more serious than your standard holiday movie. Even so, Desplechin follows the narrative template of holiday movies. The awkward gathering, family arguments, some tentative laughs—this is all very familiar.
Desplechin, however, takes the backbone of a typical holiday film and dresses with extreme cinematic technique. A Christmas Tale highlights, exposes, and at some points satirizes the inherent melodrama of the story. Rather than make the film realistic, Desplechin chooses to take the film into the surreal. The actors speak directly to the camera, there are iris shots, split-screens, and quick edits to depict one single action. The film has a hazy vibe at times, yet there are sharp scenes of human drama. Desplechin employs both first person narration from the characters, and an omniscient one. The film has an epic length (152 minutes), and just washes over you. Whether or not the film earns that runtime is up to the viewer. The length does imitate the feeling of being with your family for a long weekend. “Am I actually still here with these people?” becomes “Am I actually still watching this same movie?”
A Christmas Tale features an incomparable lead performance by Catherine Deneuve. Junon is a challenging character, often cruel and formidable. She’s endlessly fascinating because she has such unique relationships with her family members. Deneuve’s precise body language and economical dialogue delivery make Junon a fierce central character and one rarely seen in holiday films. Her supporting cast, especially Devos, Amalric, and Cosigny, rise up to her level, creating pitiable but understandable characters.
Though A Christmas Tale is a melodrama, there are some bits of humor. One of the more puzzling and weirdly delightful running jokes is Faunia’s ass being likened to Angela Bassett’s. Also, a fistfight breaks out and it’s a total farce, set to an Irish jig, just for fun. The switches in tone are handled with care. Being with your family over the holiday weekend changes from upsetting to humorous to annoying and the film mimics that. Desplechin goes for heightened cinematic melodrama in his interpretation of a typical holiday dramedy.