Dir: Arnaud Desplechin. France. 2008. 150mins.


A beautifully-cast, tragic-comic ensemble piece in which an extended family gathers for the title holiday, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale is an intricate, accomplished patchwork of sometimes nutty but always believable human behaviour. Lengthy but never dull, this lively tale is sufficiently engrossing to interest even those who don’t usually go
for Desplechin’s frank and discomfiting approach to interpersonal and intergenerational relationships.

Positive reviews at Cannes will boost its May 21 release in France. And international sales will be further helped by a colourful cast which includes Catherine Deneuve and the ubiquitous Mathieu Amalric.

Desplechin - in his fourth Competition slot at Cannes - has been anointed by the critical establishment ever since his La Vie Des Morts in 1991. Eve n his tone-deaf English language costume drama EstherKahn (2000) played for over a year in Paris. Award-winning Kings And Queen (2004) enjoyed high praise and distribution in international art house markets.

The writer-director’s propensity for sometimes daunting running times pays dividends here. Although who’s who gets sorted out with relative speed, there are a lot of people - and a lot of spoken and unspoken grievances - to keep track of.

The family is headed by Junon (Deneuve) and Abel Vuillard (bug-eyed, jowly and raspy-voiced Roussillon), who had four children. Beloved Joseph died from leukaemia as a boy.

Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Consigny) is a playwright whose troubled teenage son Paul (Berling) recently threatened her with a large knife. While Elizabeth is the only character actually seen speaking with a shrink, many viewers will conclude that the entire clan belongs on the couch.

Next is line is Henri (Amalric), a fearless, slightly unhinged soul whose habitat ranges from auction house Christie’s to the street where he falls - literally - flat on his face in homeless indigence. And youngest sibling Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and wife Sylvia (Mastroianni) have two peculiar young sons.

In the days just prior to Christmas, the clan assembles at the family home in the northern industrial city of Roubaix, a setting native son Desplechin knows inside out. Henri shows up with agreeably headstrong new girlfriend Faunia (Devos). Also on hand is Junon’s nephew, Simon (Capelluto), a painter with a melancholy yet accommodating personality.

It transpires that Junon has a frightening illness whose last-ditch treatment requires a specific genetic compatibility. Will any member of the flighty family prove a suitable - and willing - match’

Desplechin’s ambitious widescreen tale overflows with inescapable emotion, served both raw and endlessly reheated. Fanciful touches include breaking the fourth wall and the occasional iris. Although Desplechin takes visual delight in framing his characters and juggling elaborate social geography, this is a talky affair and some delectably forthright dialogue illuminates many scenes. Two hostile yet jovial chats between Junon and Henri are standouts, as is a frank and funny shopping expedition shared by Junon and Faunia.

Junon’s reaction to what could be a painful death sentence is an all-Deneuve mix of bemusement and fear, tempered by sheer pragmatism. Abel and Junon embody a brand of resigned but congenial ambivalence toward their brood not often portrayed on screen.

Despite entrenched animosities and unrequited longings, Desplechin finds that change is possible in A Christmas Tale, lending a perverse buoyancy to the proceedings.

Production companies
Why Not Productions
France 2 Cinema
Wild Bunch
Bac Films

French distribution
Bac Films

International sales
Wild Bunch
(33) 6 11 91 23 93

Why Not Productions

Screen play
Arnaud Desplechin
Emmanuel Bourdieu

Eric Gautier

Production design
Dan Bevan

Gregoire Hetzel

Laurence Briaud

Main cast
Catherine Deneuve
Jean- Paul Roussillon
Mathieu Amalric
Anne Consigny
Melvil Poupaud
Emmanuelle Devos
Chiara Mastroianni
Laurent Capelluto
Hippolyte Girardot
Emile Berling