Sunday, December 24, 2017

12 Days of Christmas Movies #11: A Christmas Tale (2008)

Happy Holidays everyone! To celebrate the most wonderful time of the year, I've decided to complete a daily review series of 12 Christmas movies leading up to the big 12/25. To qualify, the movies have to be tied to Christmas in some way and also something I've never seen before. I'll be going in chronological order. So, without further ado, if you got chestnuts, roast 'em - and enjoy my 12 Days of Christmas Movies!

A Christmas Tale
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin

The Christmas season brings families together - even if you can't stand each other. Or, in the case of A Christmas Tale, even if you previously had a restraining order placed against them! This French family "dramedy" unsentimentally explores how the holidays can bring out both the best in people and also their deep-rooted jealousies and bitterness. It's a complex, naturalistic portrait of a household told with a degree of "New Wave" style. Although the story meanders a bit, wandering in and out of the lives of these brothers, sisters, parents, and cousins, the characters are fun to watch and make A Christmas Tale a bittersweet, schizophrenic tapestry of warm and cold feelings.

The story follows the troubled Vuillard clan. Legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve plays the matriarch Junon, who learns that she has leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant days before her dysfunctional family comes home for the holidays. This family is no stranger to tragedy - Junon and her husband's first-born, Joseph, died at age 7, and his memory has continued to linger over their three subsequent children, now in their 30s. The family has deteriorated over the years - with tensions especially high between Elizabeth and her alcoholic brother Henri, who was banished from contacting her son Paul.

What at first seems like a simple family reunion soon turns into a catalyst for everyone's insecurities to manifest, but what could have been a heavy, morose, sullen-fest (ahem... Ingmar Bergman) is actually told with a vivacious, light touch. A Christmas Tale reminded me somewhat of Little Miss Sunshine in its slightly comedic handling of otherwise serious subject matter - at the end of the day joy trumps darkness. The connections between the characters feels totally authentic, with little moments that let you know they have a history together. Watching this movie is almost like going to France and looking into an upper-middle class peephole during the holidays.

What keeps this intimate movie from getting stale or repetitive is Desplechin's keen sense of filmmaking. Some of the stylistic flourishes include characters directly addressing the camera, eccentric music choices, split screens, iris shots, and even shadow puppets. Iris shots nowadays typically denote nostalgia as it's a very old-school technique (I last remember seeing them used in La La Land), but here they're actually used to show the characters' subjective focus on certain elements in the scene. Every creative decision is made to help us understand or get closer to the characters, and by the end, despite having quite a few people to keep track of, their personalities stand out.

I couldn't help but compare this movie to Fanny and Alexander. Both films prominently feature the "ghost" of a character haunting the living (though one is more literal), they're about family, set around Christmas, have sprawling casts, have a distinct European tone, and aren't your typical "feel good" Christmas movies. Though A Christmas Tale is nowhere close to being as visually striking as Fanny and Alexander, I think the characters here feel more rich, grounded and lived-in. Where Bergman wallows in sadness, this movie lets its characters breathe and be open to the full spectrum of the human experience.

A Christmas Tale is hard to properly review in that you have to live with these characters and let them grow on you. The film is on the long side (2.5 hours), but for me the time flew by. If you like character-centered dramas with a bit of humor, tragedy, and holiday magic, check out A Christmas Tale!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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