A Christmas Tale


Movie Review by Willard Manus

A CHRISTMAS TALE, written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin, is anything but standard Hollywood yuletide fare. Although it contains shots of snow, Santa, carollers and a midnight mass, this new French "family" film is anything but sentimental and upbeat, even when its young children are on screen. On the contrary. If Irving Berlin had Desplechin's family in mind when he composed his famous holiday song, its first line would have been, "I'm dreaming of a bleak Christmas."

Illness and death are the main concerns of A CHRISTMAS TALE, followed by insanity, regret and repression, plus a smidgin of sex and black humor. And that's the good news.

Junon (a plumpish Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon) have three grown children: Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and Ivan (Melvil Poupad). A fourth child, Joseph, died young of leukemia, a disease that has now afflicted Junon in old age. Only a bone-marrow transplant can possibly save her life. The compatible family members are Henri and Paul, Elizabeth's teenaged son. Problem is, Henri's a fall-down drunk, Paul's unstable and suicidal.

The clan gathers at Christmas to try and decide what to do next. Consensus is made even more difficult by personal issues. Elizabeth not only hates Henry but hasn't spoken to him for six years. Ivan's wife Silvia (Chiara Mastroianni) lusts after Simon (Laurent Capelluto), Junon's painter nephew. They finally jump into the sack, with the apparent approval (or at least knowledge) of Ivan.

Interspersed with the heartbreak and heavy breathing are long visits to the local hospital's cancer ward, culminating in Junon's New Year's Day operation, shown in precise and excruciating detail. Abel stays by his wife's side through it all. His love for her would have been much more touching and meaningful had the actor playing him not looked like the French Rodney Dangerfield.

Sitting through the two-plus hours of A CHRISTMAS TALE was akin to munching one's way through a carton of ground glass.