A Christmas Tale (Blu-ray)
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 152 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: December 1, 2009
Review Date: November 27, 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 moments, 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 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 earlier after disgrace after disgrace left him penniless and having to be bailed out by his older sister who did so only with 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’ permission, 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 many of the members of this well-to-do family. Junon is a rather cold, sterile motherly presence openly admitting that she never 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 so bitter that her life is miserable. 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 years ago 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 insecure, neurotic 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. A later dazzling fireworks display in the backyard, however, brings some joy and amusement to the film after long stretches of tension-filled angst.
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. In the end, one does come to care for the characters which certainly makes the movie an unqualified success, but the road to those feelings is erratic to be sure.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is well delivered in the transfer, 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. Contrast seems to be a little light through much of the movie, perhaps matching the film’s sometimes cold and clinical mood. Blacks aren’t always the blackest they could be, but the image overall is pleasing and solid. The white subtitles are very easy to read and sometimes fly by. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix generally uses its generous soundfield for a range of classical and seasonal compositions which seem a little more directed toward the fronts, but the excellent recording spreads well and is pleasingly enveloping. 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 presented in 1080i.
“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 1080p.
Two trailers are included in the set. The original theatrical trailer (which unlike the film transfer features a warmer, more deeply saturated color palette) runs 2 minutes while the American release trailer (looking more like the film on this Blu-ray disc) runs 2 ¼ minutes. Both are in 1080p.
The enclosed 19-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a complete chapter listing, and an appreciation of the film by writer Phillip Lopate.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
A Christmas Tale mixes its light-natured comedy and its high family drama into an engaging mix that has some definite appeal. A solid video and audio high definition encode along with some interesting extras make for a worthwhile package of entertainment.