A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

Junon Vuillard needs a bone-marrow transplant if she is to live more than a few more months; her husband, factory owner Abel, arranges for a family get-together including Christmas. Ironically, the only family members with compatible marrow are both relative outsiders: Paul, daughter Elizabeth’s 16-year-old loner only child and a certified mental case; Henri, their near-alcoholic middle son, whom Elizabeth six years ago banished from all events where she would appear as a condition of her paying his debts. Henri has been invited this time, but Elizabeth presses her son’s case as donor; Paul has never fit in, she explains to Junon, but this once he can feel he does if Junon accepts his marrow and allows him to save her life. Junon, of course, chooses Henri, whom she has always denied affection because he was conceived to provide life-saving bone marrow for Joseph but failed to deliver. Paul, who had personally invited him to the Christmastime event, privately tells Henri that he is glad at this outcome because he was terrified of being chosen. Like several other pivotal scenes, this one separates the literalists from those with some acquaintanceship with human nature. Of course, Paul felt ambivalent, but he may be saying this now because, recognizing another family-member-outsider in Uncle Henri, he is trying to ingratiate himself with him. Obtusely, Henri misses this possibility; but if we do, then we are insufficiently mature for this particular movie. We will think we understand things in it that we do not; as in life, its characters often imperfectly relay, or sometimes even grasp, their own feelings and motives. The mother-son hospital coin-toss is a stunning instance of this.
     The charm of Un conte de Noël, which won Arnaud Desplechin the Étoile d’Or as best director, is that it is so sharply observant, ambiguous and light despite the melodrama, outbursts of family violence, and looming rare leukemia. Junon may die of the same disease that claimed her and Abel’s son Joseph when he was six years old. (With a muted shrug, kindly, loving Abel notes, “Now we know where it came from.”) This is the radial event that has determined the shadow that dogs the Vuillards, especially Elizabeth, who confesses at the last, but only to herself, that she is afraid of death.
     I do not like this arid movie despite its charm and intelligence. As Junon, Catherine Deneuve, with little of her legendary beauty intact, gives another lousy performance, although, clueless about her role, she does her best to play everything close to the bra. On the other hand, Jean-Paul Roussillon (best supporting actor César) is excellent as Abel, as is Deneuve’s always marvelous daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, as Sylvia, the wife of doted-on son Ivan because his brother, her boyfriend Simon, who loved her with all his heart, she now discovers, “passed” her on to Ivan as a family-dictated sacrifice, ensuring Simon’s subsequent loneliness and misery.
     At times the film reminded me of a cut-rate Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The script is by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu.

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