If you’re like me, and you love to watch Christmas movies around December but are tired of the repeated viewings of chipper films like White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life, then the French film A Christmas Tale is the perfect cure to your holiday movie burnout. It’s an upper, too!
It’s about a woman named Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) who is diagnosed with leukemia just before Christmas. Along with her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), she takes this news with a strangely laid-back attitude and asks their fully grown children for a bone marrow transplant, which has a fifty percent chance of either helping her or killing her. Junon’s children are all in some way mentally and emotionally scarred due to the resentful and cold parentage of Junon, which is linked to a past family tragedy involving the death of Junon’s six-year-old son Joseph, who also died of leukemia in the seventies. There are at least six psychology textbooks worth of emotional baggage at play here, and the entire emotional spectrum is unleashed upon this dysfunctional family during the holidays. Santa is NOT coming to this house, believe me.
A Christmas Tale is a strange yet captivating film. The tone is never consistent, ranging from dark comedy, family drama, and romance, but this doesn’t feel like bad directing or writing; it feels intentional. I get the impression that the director and writer, Arnaud Desplechin, wants the audience to feel just as emotionally confused as the characters are. A single character feels a multitude of emotions throughout the film’s runtime. Junon’s son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) feels sadness, guilt, joy, anger, frustration, apathy, and empathy. It makes sense that the audience would be made to handle these contradictory emotions along with the characters. It feels almost experimental how the film tries to relay information and feelings to the audience through the characters’ unconventional actions and reactions to the events that play out. I also theorize that Desplechin is trying to show off his writing and directing skills, as if to say, “this is how I would write it if it were a comedy, and this is how I would write it if it were a drama, and look, now it’s a romance! Now, this scene will evoke a holiday movie, but I’m going to lace it with a quote from Nietzche! Why? Because I can!” It works out pretty well, I think, so I can’t call him a hack.
The movie doesn’t seem to be the narratively cleanest, but again, I think that was intentional. Events both pertaining and not to Junon’s illness occur one after the other, with various characters interacting with each other throughout the two and a half hour runtime. Each family member, and by extension the audience, learns something from these events, whether it be something as simple as forgiveness, acceptance, or hope, to something more complex like a better understanding of the concept of family or how families deal with grief. The fact that this takes place during Christmas does seem arbitrary at first, but it couldn’t have been any other holiday when you think about it. There’s something inherently chaotic and personal about family Christmases that makes this films’ airing of dirty laundry feel appropriate.
Topping all of this off is the casually nihilistic sense of humor that the movie has in the face of death, which is another weird but engrossing aspect that sets this apart from the optimisms of Christmas films past. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a holiday movie as cynical yet charming as A Christmas Tale. When you’re face to death with death itself, what else can you do but laugh? And what’s a better time to do it than with your family at Christmas?