Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a talky two-and-a-half-hour French movie about a family dealing with their matriarch's diagnosis of possibly terminal liver cancer. It's also the best film I've seen this year and the one most brimming with grand, messy, bulging-at-the-seams life. Despite that treacly title, which makes it sound like a very special Hallmark Hall of Fame TV flick, Tale upends virtually every cliché known to connoisseurs of holiday-themed fare.
For starters, it's the first "Christmas" film inspired by a treatise on organ transplants (La greffe by psychoanalyst Jacques Ascher and hematologist Jean-Pierre Jouet). Ho-ho-ho indeed. The extended family of Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) gathers round the yule log, trying to figure out who would make the most compatible bone-marrow transplant donor. Another pall cast over the festivities is the looming shadow of youngest Vuillard child Joseph, who died at age seven from lymphoma. Nothing says holiday cheer like a dead child and a dying mother, right?
Yet, as the clan gathers round, Desplechin does something truly remarkable. He makes every single member of the Vuillards matter. Black sheep brother Henri (the incomparable Mathieu Amalric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), golden boy Ivan (Gallic matinee idol Melvil Poupaud) and stick-embedded-up-her-ass Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) may be the surviving Vuillard children, but their squabbling spouses, children and domestic partners (Desplechin muse Emmanuelle Devos plays Amalric's on-again, off-again lover) make as vital a connection to our hearts. And Vuillard paterfamilias Abel (Henri Langlois lookalike Jean-Paul Roussillon) presides over his unruly brood like a particularly benevolent King Solomon.
Like all Desplechin films (Kings and Queens, How I Got Into an Argument, Esther Kahn, etc.), A Christmas Tale isn't the type of movie you watch passively. Just keeping track of the various familial associations requires a good amount of concentration on the audience's part. (Desplechin does, however, provide useful captions to help identify his cast of characters.) By the time it's over, I felt like an honorary member of the Vuillards and was thrilled that I got to know each and every one of them.