What is probably the biggest film the French actor Mathieu Amalric has ever been in opens today in theaters across the country. That film is Quantum of Solace, and it may be that hereafter American audiences will finally start to recognize the actor’s wet-eyed, puppy-dog mug. Amalric, an icon in contemporary French cinema, plays Dominic Greene, the villain, and Sound of the City looks forward to seeing Bond defeat his latest nemesis. But as Amalric fans, we can’t help wishing that those lining up for 007 this weekend were planning instead to see A Christmas Tale, a movie that also opens today, though on many fewer screens and with a lot less publicity.
In the latest arthouse melodrama from director Arnaud Desplechin (see this profile from former Voice editor Dennis Lim) Amalric stars as a black sheep banished years ago from family gatherings by an older sister who despises him and who is favored by their parents. Then matriarch Catherine Deneuve is diagnosed with leukemia, and Amalric—a match as a bone marrow donor—is welcomed back into the fold for Christmas. If this sounds a little obvious and sentimental for you, don’t worry. As the Voice‘s J. Hoberman explains in his review this week, Desplechin “thrives on drunken escapades, medical procedures, blunt confessions, grand gestures, and screwball riffs,” with an emphasis, in this case, on drunken escapades (it is, remember, Christmas).
Which is another way of saying that the genre-deconstructing A Christmas Tale is no Home for the Holidays. At the movie’s center is Amalric’s Henri, a man whose own mother does not love him. Some of the most emotionally creditable acting you will see all year takes place when Amalric and Deneuve share a late-night cigarette and discuss why it is they hate each other so unrelentingly. Depending on the box office receipts, after this weekend, the newest Bond bad guy is likely to receive a number of Hollywood offers. But as A Christmas Tale attests, there is a lot more to this tremendous actor than world domination.—Benjamin Strong