Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Christmas Tale

Title: A Christmas Tale (2008) -aka- Un conte de Noël
Dir: Arnaud Desplechin
Rating: ***1/2 out of 5 stars

The plot of A Christmas Tale is similar to a movie that came out a few years ago called The Family Stone. Both involve a family brought together at Christmas as the matriarch is dying of cancer, while an outsider comes to dinner and everyone hates them. There is one key difference - The Family Stone sucked. This one is actually not bad.

The Vuillard family is like any other - seemingly normal on the outside, but deeply dysfunctional at the core. The first son died as a child; the eldest Elizabeth is a manic-depressive and her son is going insane; middle child Henri is hated by the family for his drunken, destructive behaviors; and youngest child Ivan...well, he is normal, but his wife has a painful secret. When their mother Junon is diagnosed with cancer, she requires a bone marrow transplant from a compatible relative. This turns out to be Henri, who had been banished from the family by sister Elizabeth. The transplant situation prompts an uncomfortable Christmas reunion that brings a lot of buried history to the surface.

The film is mostly a drama, but it has a lot of light humor. It is easy to relate to the characters since you can probably recognize them from your own family. And you can recognize all the squabbling and awkwardness from your own holiday gatherings. All the actors are great, including screen legend Catherine Deneuve. But for me, Mathieu Almaric stole the movie. You may recognize him from Munich or Quantum of Solace, but you haven't seen really great Almaric until you've seen a performance in his native language (French, that is). This film is no exception, he is great as the Vuillard Family black sheep, Henri. You love him one moment, and hate him the next. He is definitely the funniest aspect of the film.

There are a few things I did not like or understand in the film, but they encroach on spoiler territory. One involves Ivan, his wife, and a cousin. It felt off and distracted from the rest of the film. Chalk it up to cultural differences, perhaps. Also, the movie is too long. I was not terribly bored, I just thought it could have been wrapped up sooner. The story goes on and on, and then at the very end, denies the audience the big answer we are waiting for the whole film!

A Christmas Tale isn't the type of classic film you'd watch every December 25th, but it is a realistic dramedy about family, the holidays, and forgiveness. I wouldn't recommend you rush to go see it, but it is worth watching someday, especially for fans of the actors.