December 11, 2008

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A Christmas Tale (NR)
A French family gets together to celebrate Christmas and search for a donor for their cancer-stricken mother in A Christmas Tale, a refreshing icy breeze in the overheated genre of holiday movies.

Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a precursor to leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. She has three children — Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) — who are potential donors as well as three grandchildren, Elizabeth’s teenage Paull (Emile Berling) and Ivan’s younger boys Basile (Thomas Obled) and Baptiste (Clément Obled). Paull is a match, but he’s suffering from a mental breakdown. Henri is a match, but he has been “banished” from the family by Elizabeth. Why? Because he is evil, she says at the beginning of the movie. Later, we suspect it is because he is a jerk and she is controlling and also a bit nuts. This reunion also includes at least one dead family member — Joseph, the baby that was Junon and her husband Abel’s (Jean-Paul Roussillon) oldest child. He died as a child — from leukemia, after Henri, conceived with the hopes that his bone marrow would be a match for Joseph, proved to be (as a narrator tells us in the beginning) useless.

Also joining the party are Ivan’s pretty wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter), for whom Ivan’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) still holds a torch, and Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), Henri’s girlfriend. These women have their own stories that weave, to varying degrees, into the family drama.

My viewing of A Christmas Tale was sandwiched between Four Christmases and Nothing Like the Holidays, two wider-release family-at-Christmas movies. While it shares some of the ambivalence that Four Christmases has toward family, this is in many ways the anti-Four Christmases. That movie slides in just under 90 minutes; this one creeps up to two hours and 30 minutes. That movie has one point of view (that of the Vince Vaughn/Reese Witherspoon couple); this movie tells everybody’s story — with voiceovers or monologues delivered directly to the camera to tell us what nearly all the family members think. We are in a lot of ways the guest at this gathering, we hear all the stories, all the gossip, all the old grudges without totally understanding them. Four Christmases bulldozes through its story; A Christmas Tale meanders. Four Christmases goes for the big jokes (Witherspoon terrorized in a jumpy castle, Vaughn hamming it up as a pageant Joseph); A Christmas Tale is about subtle humor, looks and sighs and cruelty masquerading as teasing, hurt masquerading as jerk-ish-ness.

A Christmas Tale is not a movie you’ll be watching with the whole clan as you nosh on stocking candy, but it is something worth watching at some point in the holiday cycle. It is one of the few Christmas-themed movies in recent years that has real observations to make about families and the relationships between siblings and parents and children. And if ever some of the tangents or the, well, Frenchness of the endeavor start to overwhelm you, you have Deneuve, who is a joy to watch, particularly in her scenes with Amalric. She is both goddess-like and wonderfully human. A well-developed 60something female character? It’s a Christmas miracle. B+

Not rated. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin and written by Emmanuel Bourdieu and Arnaud Desplechin, A Christmas Tale (titled Un conte de Noel in French) is two hours and 32 minutes and distributed in limited release by IFC Films. The movie is also available on IFC OnDemand for $6.99. The film is in French with subtitles.