A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 152 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: December 1, 2009
Review Date: November 22, 2009
A dysfunctional family heading home for the Christmas holidays is a familiar cinematic theme (think The Family Stone as a recent American example), and this scenario forms the basis of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. Filled with quite a few disturbed, dissatisfied, troubled characters and a looming medical procedure for the family matriarch, A Christmas Tale is not much for fun and games. There are some lovely times, of course, and some long-simmering hurts and secrets come to the fore, but in the main, A Christmas Tale will likely win you over simply by its basic, inevitable decency and heart.
Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) lost their oldest child Joseph to lymphoma at age seven, and the three surviving children: successful playwright Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), black sheep Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and the apple of everyone’s eye Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) have lived under the cloud of their not being a compatible donor match for their brother for years. Now, Junon is diagnosed with liver cancer and only two family members are compatible matches: Henri and Elizabeth’s clinically disturbed son Paul (Emile Berling). Henri was banished from the family six years ago after disgrace after disgrace left him penniless and having to be bailed out by his older sister who did so only on the provision that he’d not associate with the family any longer. Now that he’s needed since Paul’s ability to be a bone marrow donor is subject to his doctors, Henri returns home for the Christmas celebration where tensions are high and old wounds are going to have to be addressed.
The screenplay by Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu doesn’t paint very likeable portraits of most of the members of this well-to-do family. Junon is a rather cold, sterile motherly presence openly admitting that she never much liked her middle son and finding others in the family not to her liking either. Elizabeth’s resentful feelings for her ne’er-do-well brother after six years haven’t changed and remain bitter. Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) learns during the four days that the story covers that her husband had asked the sweet-natured cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) to back off on his pursuit of her because he couldn’t live without her. This rouses in Sylvia a feeling of resentment over the opportunities lost for her in choosing the best possible husband, and she begins flirting with the idea of an affair. And the uneasy Paul seems to be wallowing in his psychoses instead of actively trying to bask in the family’s love and attention. Desplechin’s direction mixes old fashioned iris-outs and characters breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera with disquieting modernistic views through an electron microscope of the cancer cells in Junon’s blood. The gathering at the dinner table on the first night of the reunion is wonderfully handled: distressingly uncomfortable and squirm-worthy for the characters and the audience. On the upbeat side is a quite wonderful fireworks display in the backyard which shows the family at its most amenable.
Catherine Deneuve’s character is perhaps a tad laid back for someone facing imminent death without the transplant, coupled with the fact that her Junon is not an emotional, caressing kind of woman to start with. Jean-Paul Roussillon shows a bit more life as her husband who’s hoping for the best despite all of the family problems. Mathieu Amalric gets the most opportunities to let the emotions fly, and he does so in several galvanizing scenes which cut to the heart of his character’s wounded pride and vanity. The more vibrant members of the family: Melvil Poupaud’s Ivan, Elizabeth’s husband Claude (acted smartly if too briefly Hippolyte Girardot), and Henri’s girl friend Faunia played by Emmanuelle Devos get short shrift in the scenario since the focus is on the more morose and struggling members of the clan. Perhaps a bit more lightness might have made the film’s talkier elements somewhat more palatable for a film that’s over two and a half hours long.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Sharpness is very much above average, and close-ups show a nice range of detail and definition. Flesh tones are authentic, and color saturation as a whole is more than acceptable. Blacks aren’t always the blackest they could be, and there are some shots where accentuated contrast bleaches out the picture. The white subtitles are very easy to read and sometimes fly by. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track generally uses its generous soundfield for a range of classical and seasonal compositions which seem more directed toward the fronts than in complete envelopment. There are a few ambient effects which get sent to the rears (noises at a bar, some passing traffic), but in the main, it’s the center channel which gets most of the workout from the very dialogue-heavy script. It’s well recorded and properly placed in the center channel.
L’aimée is a 66-minute documentary directed by Arnaud Desplechin concerning the sale of his family’s homeplace with sibling encounters which definitely bring to mind some events in A Christmas Tale.The feature is framed at 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The quality of this transfer is, if anything, superior to that of the main feature.
“Arnaud’s Tale” is a 36-minute interview with director Arnaud Desplechin and co-stars Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric. They talk about their work process on the film, and the two actors discuss the director’s methods of working with actors and their opinions about the script. The featurette is in anamorphic widescreen.
Two trailers are included in the set. The original theatrical trailer runs 2 minutes while the American release trailer runs 2 ¼ minutes. Both are in anamorphic widescreen.
The enclosed 19-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a complete chapter listing, a number of interesting stills, and an appreciation of the film by writer Phillip Lopate.
3.5/5 (not an average)
A Christmas Tale mixes its soft comedy and its high family drama into an engaging mix that has some definite appeal. A solid video and audio encode along with some interesting extras make for a worthwhile package of entertainment.