Arnaud Desplechin is a cinema maximalist: A Christmas Tale feels like all 12 days of seasonal merriment, and then some. This comic, ultimately touching family melodrama, shown last month in the New York Film Festival, is a heady plum pudding of a movie—studded with outsized performances and drenched in cinematic brio. The concoction is over-rich, yet irresistible.
It should be heavy, but it’s not. Des-plechin is a feverish spinner of tales. Like his previous movie, the equally extravagant ensemble piece Kings and Queen (2005), A Christmas Tale weaves the ties—genetic and otherwise—that bind a particular family into a mad tapestry. The narrative pattern seems to extend every which way at once as Desplechin brings the Vuillard clan back to their parental home in Roubaix, a small city on the Belgian border (and, not coincidentally, the place where Desplechin grew up as well).
The gathering is not only prompted by the season but by the discovery that the family’s chic and imperious matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. This illness reunites the Vuillards and also defines them. The family’s first-born son, Joseph, died of the same cancer at the age of six. His sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), remains traumatized, as does her younger brother Henri (Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric, in another madcap performance), who was conceived in the hopes that he’d prove to be a compatible bone-marrow donor for his doomed sibling. He wasn’t, and Junon has never forgiven him, bestowing such affection as she has on her last child, the once-mentally-unstable Ivan (Melvil Poupaud). To further complicate this modern fairy tale, Elizabeth—a depressed but successful playwright—has managed to “banish” feckless Henri for his involvement in some sort of family swindle.
Desplechin manages to establish most of this in a matter of minutes—as well as introduce the family’s infinitely tolerant patriarch, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), a lovably hoarse-voiced, pop-eyed troll who owns a small factory, listens to avant-garde jazz, dotes on his wife, and seemingly performs all the household chores singlehandedly. Appetite whetted and table set, the viewer waits to see what will happen when the three siblings, together with spouses, children, and the odd cousin find themselves together—not least in that the two compatible donors, Elizabeth’s emotionally fragile teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling), and the roistering black sheep Henri, turn out to be the family’s least compatible members. To further complicate this bizarre competition, it’s Paul who has taken it on himself to invite his obnoxious uncle, who arrives with his nonplussed current girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos).
As Kings and Queen made clear, Desplechin thrives on drunken escapades, medical procedures, blunt confessions, grand gestures, and screwball riffs. The characters are as volatile as the situation. A Christmas Tale unfolds in a succession of big confrontations and quick vignettes. Henri is introduced staggering through Paris, accompanied by bagpipes and quoting Bataille, until he falls face-down on the pavement. “Still don’t love me?” he greets his mother when they find themselves together. (“Never did,” she answers, to which he replies, “Same here.”) Working the border of cute without ever crossing over, Desplechin is protected by the energy of his film tinkering. There’s a sense that he’s constantly working out the setup for each scene even while it’s happening.
This is a movie of moment-to-moment unpredictability. A long, unexpectedly lyrical montage (city streets, watery surfaces, Christmas lights) heralds Henri’s arrival home. The action is prone to sudden bursts of movie-movie music and speeches given directly into the camera. A Christmas Tale has the full New Wave panoply of freeze frames, inter-titles, jump-cuts, and irises—not to mention an abundance of outlandish extra-textuality. The dying Deneuve is nothing less than the spirit of cinema, and the movie’s ongoing mother-child thematic is enriched (and deranged) by the presence of her actual daughter Chiara Mastroianni in the role of a disliked daughter-in law. The Vuillard family TV is a constant source of cultural reference, variously transmitting Funny Face, The Ten Commandments, and several excerpts from the all-star A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Marx Rein-hardt directed for Warner Bros. in 1935—Desplechin’s ambitions not only encompass Shakespeare but theatrical showmanship.
Desplechin has also invented a form of domestic magic realism. Not unlike this movie, the Vuillard home is crammed with stuff—including a doll-house model of itself. Photographs of the dead crowd the mantle. The place is a kind of theater, both lived-in and uncanny, consecrated to the universal, atavistic belief that the dead return to their families at the New Year season. Protesting against his banishment, Henri had written to Elizabeth that “we’re in the midst of a myth, and I don’t know what myth it is.” (On Christmas Eve, Elizabeth maliciously returns the letter unopened as her “present” to Henri.) His confusion is understandable. With its surplus of evocative, clashing, character names—Junon, Abel, Daedalus, Faunia—A Christmas Tale invites myth-and-ritual parsing even as it defeats it.
In any case, the myth is overwhelming. The Vuillards’ family history is so thick, it seems like legend—like the wolf supposedly living in their basement. Faunia, who is Jewish, flees back to Paris on Christmas Eve, leaving the Vuillards to celebrate—fireworks, champagne, Mendelssohn skittering in the background—unwrapping family secrets instead of gifts, and watching Charlton Heston’s Moses. Just as the Red Sea parts, Henri awakes from a drunken stupor, climbs out his window, and returns to the fold to lead Junon and Paul to midnight mass. Nor is this apparent reconciliation the last Christmas miracle that Desplechin has up his capacious sleeve. Expansive but cozy, convoluted yet circular, at once avant and retro, and contradictory down to its last scene, the movie ends with a new myth—if not a new cosmology—articulated by the writer Elizabeth.
A Christmas Tale opens in New York in the wake of two serious American movies—Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York—each with analogies to Desplechin’s. An ensemble drama about a death-haunted family fixated on a particularly obnoxious member and brought together in celebration, Rachel has a close resemblance to A Christmas Tale narrative, while Kaufman works the art-life conundrum with a sense of manic invention rivaling Desplechin’s. But where humorless Demme appears handcuffed by self-righteous correctness and morbid Kaufman seems overwhelmed by the chore of directing an undirectable script, Desplechin exhibits a contagious pleasure in his work.
As suffocating (and overpraised) as Rachel and Synecdoche are, one hopes that they haven’t sucked the critical oxygen out of the atmosphere or overdrawn all available superlatives from the dictionary. A Christmas Tale is deft, playful, fluid, haunting, and filled with the joy of filmmaking.