2008-12-19 / Columnists


'A Christmas Tale' - Dysfunctional Family, French Style
By Robert Snyder

Leave it to the French to put an extra dysfunctional twist on the Christmas family reunion film. In filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," beautiful matriarch Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia as her family converges for the holiday. It is the same disease that killed her first born, Joseph, at age 7, decades ago. Her second son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), was actually conceived to provide a bone marrow match for Joseph, but it didn't take. Through the years, Henri degenerated into such an alcoholic failure that his manic depressive sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), had him banished from family contact.

Now, Henri is needed. He must give his bone marrow to save his mother. He arrives home brimming with cigarettes, booze and retribution.

Though central to the storyline, the cancer plot is only one of many that Desplechin somehow manages to convey coherently (and in French with English subtitles no less).

Of course, it helps that the acting is superb on every level from the Nietzsche reading factory owner patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) to his mentally-ill teenage grandson, Paul (Emile Berling).

Deneuvre's own daughter, Chiara Mastrioanni (her father is legendary actor Marcello) plays her daughter-inlaw Sylvia, who is married to Junon and Abel's son, Ivan. Sylvia manages to consummate her long-lost love with her husband's cousin, Simon (Laurent Capelluto), without so much as a shrug from Ivan when the act is revealed. C`est la vie!

Still, the film rises to life affirmation when Henri connects with his mom after the marrow procedure. Again, it's a shrug…but a great one.

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