Playing out as some sort of hybrid love/hate relationship Christmas homecoming comedy-cum-tragedy, as much in love with the idea of family and the holiday as it is dead set against it, hosed down as it were with the giddy visual bravura of the Nouvelle Vague that is coursing like damnation through the very blood of the filmmaker, and replete with the deepest array of French cinema royalty swerving like a Renoir-inspired group hallucinatory drunken snake through the secret cavernous catacombs of hilariously battered psychosis, repressed childhoods and dark familial achings, and riffing on Shakespeare as if the deep luscious crimsons and golds that penetrate every nook and cranny and kith and kin of this provincially ornamental grotesquery of dysfunctional and deteriorated genealogy were decorating the actual Globe Theatre itself by way of Roubaix - not to mention Desplechin's wholly saturated homage to Hitchcock and Vertigo (so far as to even have a ghost named Madeleine haunting the proceedings) - nouveau Nuevelle auteur Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is easily one of the most purely entertaining films of 2008 and quite possibly the best French film in nearly a decade.
The ravenously cutthroat neo-Shakespearean tale of a meticulously estranged provincial, bourgeois-cum-bohemian family who, due to the somewhat aloofly dire need for a fresh batch of bone marrow for the grand dame matriarch, come together at Christmas time, blacksheeps and all in tow, A Christmas Tale does the seemingly impossible, by taking the traditional, and unfortunately ubiquitous home-for-the-holidays scenario, so often a cinematic disaster, ranging from the insipid and the jejune to the ridiculously repugnant, and giving it, like the fiery phoenix of one too many Chevy Chase Christmas light gags that were never really funny in the first place, a deliriously decadent (read: deliriously French) rebirth. Ambivalent toward any idea of time or space (the fact that the film takes place at Christmas is merely incidental - a plot convenience if you will) this quite pregnantly ethereal and utterly self-referential Eurocentric postulation on the vicissitudes of homecoming and the gnawing of human nature to attack when cornered, is at once the perfect Christmas movie and the cinapocalyptic death knell for the family drama as we have known it these past hundred plus years.
Imbued with both the traits of the New Wave Desplechin grew up and cut his teeth on and the traditions of cinema he (and they) secretly bond with, what the hyperbolic A Christmas Tale is, more than the obvious, is a disaster movie of familial proportions as we meet all the players, strutting and fretting their hours upon the stage like an almost never-ceasing parade of prima donna disaster movie prototypes, each introduced beneath their own personally decorated black clouds of impending (and inevitable?) doom. First there is the self-absorbed matriarch, played with the now typical regalness of the queen of French cinema herself, Catherine Deneuve, with her obscurely convenient cancer and derision for most of her children and her foolhardy jovial enigma of a husband who manages to get the entire family, outcasts and all, to come to ma mère's sordid rescue. Then come the children, self-righteous indignant Elizabeth and her suicidal prodigy, baby Ivan and his wife (Deneuve's own daughter in an ironic twist as the hated daughter-in-law) and finally the exiled Puck of the whole scenario, Henri, played with a shaken sense of entitlement by the chameleonic crux of current French cinema, Mathieu Amalric and perfect foil for the mother hen (the most delightfully acerbic scene is between mother and son as they admit to the hatred for each other). Full of sound and fury and signifying nothing (to borrow a line from a different Shakespeare play) it is Henri's puckish behaviour that disturbs and detracts and lends itself in the most enticingly devious way to the festivities abounding.
And in the end, it should come as no surprise as to whom the most compatible components are when the medical reports are finally in - who the doomed saviours of the damned matriarchy are - and it should also come as no surprise, after living with this film, this family, for two plus hours, that it doesn't even matter who the saviour is, for the plot is mere contrivance put in place to push forward the eventual denouement that comes to pass in the most subtle, even invisible manner somewhere along the line of this möbius strip of a movie. A dream perhaps. Desplechin ends his film as he began it, with the voice of the one Henri so callously and casually calls the princess cunt, Elizabeth. We listen as she paraphrases the final words of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". They did not mean to offend, perchance it was just a dream after all. [12/27/08]