Late in A Christmas Tale Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the mirthful, patient patriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s altogether marvelous new film, reads aloud from the opening pages of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. His audience is his oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has been complaining about the inexplicable sadness that perpetually afflicts her. As comfort and chastisement, Abel recites a long passage about the futility of our desire for self-knowledge and our alienation from our own experience.
“We rub our ears after the fact,” Nietzsche wrote, “and ask in complete surprise and embarrassment, ‘What just happened?’ or even, ‘Who are we really?’” A Christmas Tale, which follows the extended Vuillard family through a few days and several lifetimes’ worth of hectic emotional confusion, induces a similar state of astonishment. Abel and Elizabeth are only two of a dozen vividly drawn, painfully human characters, all of them prone to self-analysis, none of them especially blessed with self-understanding. After two-and-a-half hours in their thrilling, exhausting company, the intimacy we feel with them is wired with bafflement. What just happened? Who are they really?
Such estrangement — the gap between the things we do and the reasons we supply for doing them, between who we think we are and who we appear, to others, to be — is, for Desplechin, both a theme and a premise. His films are headlong, ardent explorations of failure, misunderstanding and emotional warfare, which turn out to be roughly synonymous with nobility, generosity and love. Everyone in his world is so complicated that it’s a wonder a single house, family, film or planet could contain more than one.
A CHRISTMAS TALE
DIRECTED BY: Arnaud Desplechin
STARRING: Catherine Deneuve (Junon), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel), Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri), Melvil Poupaud (Ivan), Hippolyte Girardot (Claude), Emmanuelle Devos (Faunia), Chiara Mastroianni (Sylvia), Emile Berling (Paul), Laurent Capelluto (Simon)
LANGUAGE: French with Chinese subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 150 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
The crowd that gathers in the stately old Vuillard house in Roubaix, a small industrial city tucked away in France’s northeastern corner, includes Abel’s wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and three children, Elizabeth, Henri and Ivan, and Elizabeth’s teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling), who suffers from a mental disorder. Abel and Junon’s first child, a boy named Joseph, died of a rare form of leukemia in childhood, and his death continues to haunt the family. This is less because of lingering grief — though Abel in particular seems to carry the loss of his firstborn close to his heart — than because Junon has recently been diagnosed with the same illness that killed her son. Her only hope for survival is a bone marrow transplant, and her children and grandchildren undergo tests to determine if one of them might be a suitable donor.
Illnesses mental and terminal, the death of a child, the reunion of a big family just in time for the holidays — Desplechin lines up all the elements of a hokey domestic melodrama. And then he sends them flying, with impish brio. There are stretches of voice-over narration and moments when characters speak directly into the camera, but these devices, which might be ironical or distancing, instead serve to heighten the sense of vigor and immediacy.
The narrative swerves and sudden crises in A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel) are less extreme than those in some of Desplechin’s other films — the sublimely wayward My Sex Life, for instance, or his dysfunctional masterpiece, Kings and Queen. But this frantically eventful movie has a plot only in the sense that a child has a fever. The logic and sequence of events is not an order imposed on experiential chaos, but rather a pattern within that chaos itself, a symptom and a sign of life.