Synopsis: In Arnaud Desplechin’s beguiling A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel), Catherine Deneuve brings her legendary poise to the role of Junon, matriarch of the troubled Vuillard family, who come together at Christmas after she learns she needs a bone marrow transplant from a blood relative. That simple family reunion setup, however, can’t begin to describe the unpredictable, emotionally volatile experience of this film, an inventive, magical drama that’s equal parts merriment and melancholy. Unrequited childhood loves and blinding grudges, brutal outbursts and sudden slapstick, music, movies, and poetry, A Christmas Tale ties it all together in a marvelously messy package.
Un conte de Noël 8.0
eyelights: the creative direction. the solid cast. the unflinching dialogues.
eyesores: the grimness of the family dynamics.
‘Un conte de Noël’ is a 2009 French film that takes place during the holiday season and focuses on the dynamics of a small family, headed by softy Abel and ice queen Junon. Now in their later years, they are still very much in love, but their family is cracking at the seams. At the root is their eldest son, Henri, who has been a problem child and is highly despised by most of them.
Five years prior, Henri had been banished from the family by his sister, Elizabeth, as part of the terms for repaying his massive debts – debts for which he would otherwise have had to do jail time. The whole family understood and abided by these terms, but Christmas is coming and Junon has fallen ill. As they struggle to decide what her best course of action might be, they must come together again.
In the hands of Hallmark Movie Channel, this would be the perfect opportunity for redemption and a heartwarming reconnection of the family members. In the hands of auteur Arnaud Desplechin, however, it’s merely an excuse for picking at the scraggly bits that are dying off from vine. And he’s ruthless – as ruthless as the characters are with each other (and that’s saying something!).
If ‘Un conte de Noël’ Is anything, it’s unrelenting and unforgiving. It puts a spotlight on some extremely dark matter at the heart of the Vuillard family and exposes them for all to see. It’s ugly, uncomfortable and, frankly, sometimes quite shocking to see the way that they behave with each other, or even to hear the words that they use to express themselves.
Most of the dialogues are akin to bashing one’s self in the face with a small metal hammer, but there’s this one particularly disturbing scene when Junon and Henri discuss matter-of-factly just how little they love each other and never have. It’s incredibly candid, cold and even… cruel. I could hardly believe that a mother could speak to her son like this.
One can’t help but wonder what has festered in their hearts so that they would express such loathing and/or contempt for each other (with few exceptions), and the secret lies in the death of a fourth, eldest sibling, whose mark has been stamped on the whole family and whose passing resonates even to this day, three decades later.
The Vuillards’ atmosphere has been poison ever since:
- Abel is a simple, kind patriarch. He has a dyeing business and is perfectly content running it, never aspiring to anything more despite his obvious intellect. He is happy with his much-younger spouse, and takes all the ups and downs of life in stride, always trying to focus on the positives over the negatives. And yet, one gets the impression that there’s a certain sadness beneath the surface, that his brave face may be a mask.
- Junon loves and desires her husband even now that he is old and in poor shape. But she doesn’t seem to enjoy her family much. In particular, she loathes Henri, her eldest son, and doesn’t make any effort to hide it. She can be extremely cruel in the way that she talks to -or about- her children. And, being an ice queen, she never shows any warmth towards any of them. Ever. I don’t even recall seeing her break a smile. Of course, she is also struggling with her mortality, bravely steeling herself in the face of death – so she may not have much to smile about.
- Elizabeth is consistently depressed and doesn’t know why. Could it be that having lost Joseph, being unable to save him herself, has left her stricken with perpetual grief? She should be happy: she is married to a brilliant mathematician and they have a son. Except that her son is now struggling with mental issues and they’re not sure what to do with him. Further complicating matters are her utter loathing of Henri, the brother who exists because of her own failure and possibly reminds her of it. She has gone so far as to have him banished by the rest of the family.
- Henri is hated by absolutely everyone – and the intense hatred that he is subjected to is beyond most people’s capacity to brush off. At best, he is tolerated. Conceived to be a bone marrow donor for Joseph, Abel and Junon’s eldest child, after Elizabeth was incompatible, he is the family’s greatest misfire because his own incompatibility was the final nail in Joseph’s coffin. His every mistake only serves to highlight how much of a disappointment he is. Inevitably, he’s become a drunk, a total @$$hole, a product of the bile that he’s been fed his whole life.
- Ivan, the youngest sibling, is weak and ill – he even suffered mental issues in his youth. He seems friendly and inoffensive, but one gets the impression that he’s just floating through life, with no real goal or sense of purpose (case-in-point, his reaction to his nephew’s own mental illness: he suddenly finds purpose in helping him). Sadly, his spouse is with him only because of a secret arrangement that she is unaware of.
- Simon, a cousin who was raised as part of the family, is a working artist who has mostly kept to himself for at least a decade. He seems sympathetic and pleasant, but we eventually discover that there is a simmering anger beneath the surface, something that comes bubbling up whenever he drinks… alone. Little do the Vuillards know that he’s holding a secret that’s been eating away at him this whole time.
- Paul, one of the Vuillard grandsons is schizophrenic and is at risk of hurting himself. He is extremely fragile and is about to be institutionalized. Ironically, he may be the only one who could save Junon, as he is compatible. Henri is also compatible, but there is much doubt as to whether he will want to participate or if Junon would even accept his bone marrow donation. Paul seems to stabilize in the face of this new situation.
- Faunia comes to the gathering with Henri, as his latest in a long string of girlfriend. For reasons unknown, she is drawn to the chaos that Henri fosters, and even relishes it when there’s an argument or a fight, looking on with fascination, if not a glimmer in her eye. She is ready to laugh at any conflict that arises at the Vuillards and candidly expresses her inability to relate with her family and, thus, anyone else.
The cast is all superb, like one might expect from this type of French drama, but it would all be for naught if Arnaud Desplechin hadn’t been so brilliant in his execution, in the way that he framed each scene (sometimes stylizing it by making it look like a peephole, that sort of thing), breaking the movie up into chapters (some, like “Jubilation”, being wholesale ironic), and having some of the characters break the fourth wall to tell us some back story.
It’s these choices that make this otherwise self-indulgent two-and-a-half hour film fly by at a decent pace, despite the omnipresent emotional weight on hand. By being creative in the way that he constructed his tale, Desplechin gave the story life where there was lifelessness, and vibrancy where there would otherwise only be gloom. His approach was the perfect antithesis for a film where the minutes might have dragged.
‘Un conte de Noël’ may sound like a heavy -if not grim- viewing for Christmas, and it certainly is if one wants the traditional cornucopia of nostalgia and good intentions. But it makes for a superb counterpoint when one wants something seasonal, but not something schmaltzy. This is anything but. ‘Un conte de Noël’ is unflinching but utterly engrossing, and while it will never be a classic, it’s well worth seeing.
Date of viewing: December 20, 2013