Now how unassumingly elegant is this! Imagine The Royal Tenenbaums [without Wes Anderson's screaming "oh we are so quirky and dysfunctional, look at us: we are so funny!"] meets Noam Baumbach via some over-plotting courtesy Almodovar. Apologies for the references to communicate this movie’s flavour, but Arnaud Desplechin’s work has eluded me till now, and I was so humbly surprised at the gorgeous, equipoised kitchen sink drama he’s created with such heart-rendingly warm strokes, I just had to say I absolutely heart the guy’s work.
A couple next door has a son with a rare lymphoma. He dies and they go on and have three more. They all grow in different directions, two boys and a girl, eliciting varying degrees of love, attention from their parents and each other, until an inexplicable hatred takes form between the sister and the elder brother and takes such a shape that when we meet these two characters some 20 years on, as the sister is bailing out his brother by paying all his debts in court, she explicitly keeps the condition of never seeing him from that day on. Banished from the family, the brother [played by Mathieu Amalric] already reeling from his wife’s death, drifts about until five years later when the materfamilias of the main family is diagnosed with a rare cancer which sends all the kids and the grandkids into blood and marrow testing frenzy to find a compatible donor. With Christmas on the anvil, the father of the family decides to invite all the three kids with their respective families, and as is predictable, a good amount of dirty linen gets cleaned over the four-five days.
The film is endearingly patient and the director’s out to capture the littlest of ways family members seek out to each other: reacting to each other’s idiosyncracies; having dinner table arguments; scoffing, sharing, insulting, entertaining, confronting, punching, persecuting, then reconciling; reveling in each other’s fortunes and misfortunes in the year gone by; getting exasperated and finding oxygen by driving each other mental with grudges of the past and snuggling into the warmth of some random shared nostalgia respectively: it’s all here in this true-to-life snapshot of three generations brought under one roof for five days. All of it suffused by Desplechin’s feather-light touch, his use of snug interior glow to light up shots, and some beautiful background score [it helps the family in question-Vuillards, everyone plays an instrument].
The psychological accuracy and eloquence one witnesses in a disillusioned brother’s letter to his embittered sister or the way the head of the family quotes from a work alluding about the nature of knowing oneself when asked by his daughter what she’s lost and why she’s so misunderstood are just some of the choicest moments when you get to appreciate how beautifully written this film is.
The rest of the running time, just watching members of this family interacting with and interpreting each other is where the movie draws almost all its charm. And the good thing is they all have a terrific sense of humour. The whole ensemble is natural to the core. Catherine Denueve as the mother-head is class personified, Mathieu Amalric who I thought I could never visualise as anything but as Jean-Dominique Bauby in the last year tour-de-force Diving Bell and the Butterfly seamlessly melts into another compelling male-portrait and is everybit the misunderstood brother/ignored son as Herni could be, and as the seething with bile sister Elizabeth, Anne Consigny manages to elicit sympathy. Besides, I’d wonder who could watch JP Rousillon and not reminisce about their own grandparents. What’s also endearing is Desplechin’s care for detail for all the distressful medical procedures that the family members have to go through, so you have Amalric flashing his bandaged derrieré, Denueve getting her sternum marked and stabbed for bone marrow biopsy and a small montage of meiosis under a microscope.
So there you have it, a supremely identifiable tragicomedy about lymphoma, schizophrenia, diametrically opposite siblings, Christmas, overmelancholic parents, brothers deciding amongst themselves who’s most deserving of a girl they all have fallen for (or slept with) and also about Christmas wine, Christmas decorations, dinners, Midsummer’s Night Dream on TV, long night walks in snow, midnight masses and moms connecting with their boys’ girls and wives and grandads giving grandchildren warm baths and uncles forgetting their nephews’ names. Cinema verité of the most universal resonance.
Sublime, honest and absorbing, Un Conte De Noel AKA A Christmas Tale is one film to cherish. Released in 2008 amidst some other equally compelling dysfunctional family dramas like Rachel Getting Married and Margot at the Wedding, catch its trailer here: