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Directed by Arnaud Desplechin’s
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A Christmas Tale
Having seen in my lifetime as a critic something more than three thousand films, it’s somehow appalling – no, it’s inexplicable – no, ultimately it’s embarrassing -- that a film as open and straightforward as Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” should be so confoundingly complex that I have almost no idea of what went on during its two and a half hours. An elderly couple, Junon and Abel (Catherine Deneuve and her husband Jean-Paul Roussillon), have had three children all these many years ago. The first-born, Joseph, had leukemia and died at age 7 – no one in the family had a compatible marrow that might have saved him, and Junon still mourns him. They later had another son, Ivan. Their grown son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), an alcoholic, embezzled some money five years ago, and his sister Claude bails him out on the understanding that he will have absolutely no further contact with her or with his family. In the meantime, Junon is discovered to have a pre-cursor to the same Leukemia that killed her son Joseph. Again, only a marrow transplant might save her, though it might also kill her.
Junon and Abel invite all the family to celebrate Christmas at the family home in Roubaix, and this is where I lost track of – I can’t say the plot, because there is barely enough plot to sustain the film. What I lost sight of was whom – who was mad at whom and why, for instance why did Chiara Mastroianni (yes, the daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni), playing a daughter-in-law of the family, get the inside jokeit? keep a torch burning (a symbolic torch, but a torch neverheless) for one of the brothers, who appears to be even more of a loser than Henri?
And what about Paul, the teenaged son of one of the family, who may or may not have schizophrenia? But he does have the compatible bone marrow, as does the scapegrace Henri. And what does it mean that Henri brings his latest girlfriend to the Christmas celebration except that she’s Jewish and won’t stay; she has family waiting for her in Paris. And what about Desplechin’s use of music of all genres and ages and styles, to say nothing of his use of the iris, to isolate one or another of his characters? And perhaps even more important, three critics I admire – Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek and A.O. Scott – each wrote rave reviews of the film without even once mentioning what happens in it. That should make me feel better about not getting it, but somehow it doesn’t. All I can take away from that is that they were as confounded as I was. I think one problem with the film is that at least for us in the English-speaking world, not quite enough character separation is exposed in the script, and so what we hear or learn about one person might as well have come from another; for me the brothers and sisters were too interchangeable. And yet, “A Christmas Tale” has beauty, violence and even poetry; it awaits someone smarter than me to unravel it. The film is available on DVD at stores or through Netflix.