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Jimmy So
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"A Christmas Tale"

Lions in the Winter

“A Christmas Tale.”

by Jimmy So

The ensemble (pronounce it in French, if you prefer) of “A Christmas Tale” comprises only a single family, and that’s plenty. The big-hearted Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is married to the cold-hearted Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and they have three children: the emotionally wounded Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), the despicable screw-up Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and the least sunken of them all, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), had his own troubles in the past and might not be so free of those misfortunes after all—his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, the real-life daughter of Deneuve, and you know the father if you recognize the last name or her unique features) is in love with his cousin. He very likely knows, but he doesn’t seem all that bothered when on Christmas morning he cheerfully wakes up the two adulterers. Maybe keeping it cool is how it’s done in France; maybe it’s rather normal for two grownups to share a bed in the crowded and colorful Vuillard home.

There was a fourth child, the eldest son Joseph, and it’s hinted that Henri was conceived simply to give the sick Joseph a chance at a transplant. Henri was unable to save his brother, who died at the age of seven, and now the human bone marrow dispenser is once again called upon—Junon has cancer and wants to, in her own words, “take back what’s mine.” Henri is a possible donor, and Elizabeth’s teenage son, Paul, is also compatible, but he’s just as lost as Henri—he’s suicidal and prone to seeing a black dog in mirrors. There are many more side stories and a few other interesting characters, and it’s difficult to find a central narrative in the film—despite what the title promised, you’ll be disappointed if you expect  . Events occur not because they advance the plot but as a way to paint the relationships between the folks of the Vuillard clan. This is a portrait of a household during the holidays, not a Christmas fable. The jazz played on the stereo is Charles Mingus and not Vince Guaraldi, the book read aloud is Nietzsche and not Dr. Seuss. Christmas, to the Vuillards, is not so much a ritual as an excuse to bring the many antagonistic parts of a family under one roof, and the film slowly makes the claim that such is the essence of the yuletide season—Christmas is like a  -esque reality show, if you will, and survival is the game.

The Vuillard family is almost too dysfunctional for one movie, albeit a two-and-a-half-hour one. Robert Altman was the king of the stylized ensemble, and nobody has managed to succeed him since his death. Arnaud Desplechin, best known in America for 2004’s “Kings and Queen,” has made a case for snatching the crown back to the land of Jean Renoir, the French having   ensemble films. Desplechin uses every trick in the book: iris fades, keyhole peeps, shadow puppets, actors directly addressing the camera, and clips of “Funny Face,” Max Reinhardt’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Ten Commandments.” Desplechin’s efforts happily suggest a small revival of the form.

But the most noteworthy accomplishment of “A Christmas Tale” is not Desplechin’s conducting of a troupe of actors, but the performance of a particular one. Pauline Kael once lamented Katharine Hepburn becoming weak and pitiful in “The Lion in Winter" and chafed at Bette Davis going “soft” in “Pocketful of Miracles.” The two greatest Hollywood heroines aged into what smart audiences loved them for not being: The tough and white-hot Davis, in the winter of her career, had become either sweet and lovable or grotesque; the aristocratic and clever Hepburn turned woeful and quivering. Kael was dismayed by their betrayals, and thought that Hepburn, above all, used her personal romances and battles to draw upon people’s feelings for her and not her character. “When Hepburn, the most regal of them all, contemplates her blotches and wrinkles with tears in her anxious eyes, it’s self-exploitation, and it’s horrible.”

We have long loved Deneuve for being the reigning ice queen, imperturbable against any foolishness around her. “A Christmas Tale” could be the last word on her chilly strength: Junon, while smoking and chatting relatively cordially with Henri on a swing—clearly a scene given to a reconciliation—without so much as a thought informs her son that she never loved him, as if there could not be a more natural assertion. It  the most natural response—no self-respecting parent can love Henri, and “A Christmas Tale” is very much about warring relatives being thrown together during the holidays and having to suffer one another without sinking into each others’ arms and tearfully declaring their love. The plot provides plenty of chances for a lesser actor to interpret Junon as an aging beauty pitying herself, passive-aggressively begging for love in the face of demise and death. But Denueve doens't play a shell of her former glory; she plays Junon, who is cruel, cool, at times even carefree about her illness. It is not that established actors shouldn't cast against type; they simply shouldn't infuse a role with enterprising nostalgia. Deneuve has yet to exploit the audience or make herself piteous—how young and beautiful she used to be, but age is only making her smarter, funnier, more serene, and devastatingly dazzling. She is far from going soft, and lets hope the mighty never fall. ♦

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about 15 years ago 0 likes  1 comments  0 shares

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Languages Spoken
english, cantonese, mandarin
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New York City, United States
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male
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November 27, 2007