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Photo By: ŠJean-Claude Lother—Why Not Productions
FAMILY TIES: Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve tackle the holidays in 'A Christmas Tale.'

Wolf at the Door

A French family considers its options in Arnaud Desplechin's 'A Christmas Tale'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE magnificent French drama A Christmas Tale, a physician is diagnosing a possibly fatal blood disease. He tells his patient, Mme. Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), that she has "a rare gene." Deneuve gives her regal blonde head a small toss, as if to say, "But of course." She is the matriarch of an haute bourgeois family in the unlovely northern city of Roubaix. Arnaud Desplechin (co-writer and director) refers to a few American films to help place this story. William Dieterle's 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one reference, emphasized with some Mendelssohn on the soundtrack. Charlton Heston orders the Red Sea to split in dubbed French, and we see a quick clip of Fred Astaire's wincing smile aimed at Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.

But A Christmas Tale really reflects Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, with the artsiness and eccentricity of the members of the Sycamore family emphasized. Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the beaming father, is a different kind of Lionel Barrymore, a frog-faced, frog-voiced assimilated Jewish man. His oaklike strength is visible from the film's beginning, when we see him orating at the grave of his son, who died young. This combination of strength and toxicity is still evinced when the family gathers for a Christmas holiday, overshadowed by illness. In addition to the rounds of dinners and midnight mass, there will be a spot of tissue typing, since a bone-marrow transplant might save Junon. It might kill her, for that matter. The most likely candidate for donor is the black sheep of the family, Henri (Mathieu Amalric).

Amalric shows how very little he was given to do in Quantum of Solace in comparison with this bold, catalyzing role. You have to be forceful to match up to a Catherine Deneuve, and Amalric stands his ground. This is no mere juicy family feud. Desplechin juggles a cast of about a dozen major roles during the course of this holiday. The family legend (a ghost wolf in the basement) torments the latest member of this family to crack, Henri's nephew Paul (Emile Berling). This touch of fantasy adds to some other distancing devices: a child's shadow plays, silent-movie-style irising in, and the film's risky but successful change to medical procedural at the end.

The clinical moments are essential to this film's elegance. Precision can sharpen an insult or a comeback, and that's something the Vuillards know, this family of music and poetry lovers who use Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals for holiday reading. They're detached enough that they can do algebra on a chalkboard to try to determine Junon's chances of survival. The Vuillards are so conscious of the rules of their own particular game that when Henri finally makes his big scene, he does it with a quote from Saint-Simon. The essential Frenchness of this great French film lies in its respect for the power of understatement, in its longing for the precise when describing emotional states—and in its bone-chilling unflappability. A Christmas Tale's more universal qualities should be apparent to anyone who has survived a Christmas, and God help us, here comes another one.


Movie Times A CHRISTMAS TALE (Unrated; 152 min.), directed by Arnaud Desplechin, written by Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon and Mathieu Amalric, opens Nov. 21.

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