The newly released French film, A Christmas Tale, is a holiday story of a family reunion. Starring Catherine Deneuve as Junon — the matriarch of the Vuillard family — the film features family dysfunction, historic rivalries, petty jealousies, ongoing angst, and mutual recrimination. Yet, in its seriousness and its levity, the film — directed by Arnaud Desplechin of Kings and Queen fame — transcends predictable conventions. It is a sort of cross between Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. In striving to be both a Bergman and an Anderson film, it succeeds at being neither — despite its occasionally impressive dialogue and its genuine efforts at character development.
At Christmas, the Vuillard family — encompassing Junon, her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and their three children, Élizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Ivan — gather at the family estate in Roubaix in northeast France. Élizabeth — whose longstanding feud with her alcoholic and destructive brother Henri led her to bargain with her father for his banishment from the family some years earlier — is dour and unhappy. She is now married and the mother of a suicidal teenage son, Paul (Émile Berling). Ivan, the calm mediator, is married to Sylvia (played by the stunning Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve) and the father of two rambunctious and precocious boys.
Junon and Abel’s first child, Joseph, died of a rare form of leukemia in childhood — and memories of his death continue to afflict the family, especially now that Junon has been diagnosed with the same illness. As was the case in the aftermath of Joseph’s diagnosis, so too now the family members are being tested to determine whether any might be a fit donor for a bone-marrow transplant. Even if a match surfaces, there is still the possibility that Junon’s system will reject the marrow.
Like most European films, A Christmas Tale takes its time introducing story lines and connections between characters. In addition to the cumulative effect of overlapping stories, a type of coincidence is deployed to tie plot lines and themes together. To deepen our sense of the relationship between Élizabeth and Henri, the film at one point alternates between Élizabeth’s conversation with her mother and Henri’s with his father. As she confesses that she always craved her mother’s approval and that “men never mattered” to her, a mildly enraged Henri confronts his father about the way he has let the women — namely, his mother and sister — control the family. At another point, the camera moves back and forth between the boys’ very witty performance of a comic drama on Christmas Eve and an argument between Henri and Élizabeth. The juxtaposition underscores hitherto unseen comic elements in the adult siblings’ fighting and the element of play-acting involved in their self-righteous assertions.
The juxtaposition of narratives also highlights the contrasting directions in which different familial relationships are headed. In one instance — Junon’s admission to Henri that she never loved him — reconciliation in any deep sense is replaced with resignation. Another thread explores a case of long-held, passionate — and unexpressed — love. In the former, history is insuperable; while in the latter it is just getting started — if not in a way that liberates characters from past choices.
Choice and wagering come up repeatedly in the film. Junon’s decision whether to seek treatment is presented as a version of Pascal’s wager. “You are playing a game” one character comments, “and your only freedom is to bet.” But of course, this is no ordinary wager — where death is at issue, we confront an “absolute event.” Yet, the absoluteness of death is not especially prominent in the film, or at least it is not presented ultimately as something horrifying. The film’s various allusions to Pascal, Nietzsche and others only serve to expose its pretentious mediocrity.
Without disregarding death, the film stresses that what matters is the here and now and our relations one with another. The quest to find a familial blood match has at least two kinds of metaphorical significance. It points up the way character types — whether because of nature or nurture — repeat themselves from one generation to the next. In this case, Junon’s two matches turn out to be self-destructive males: her son Henri and her grandson Paul. Finding a match also represents the desire in a family for reconciliation. Just as with the bone-marrow transplant, the matching of family members can prove deadly but that is the inescapable risk of family.
The quest for understanding, love, and reconciliation — or simply the desire to go on living with one’s angst and antagonistic attitudes — does not take on any real religious resonance, despite the liturgical setting of the film. The Vuillard family exhibits the typical French insouciance about adultery — and reserves the same sort of flippancy toward the religious significance of the Christmas holiday, which receives at most a detached acknowledgment.
Henri comments, “We’re in the midst of a myth, but I don’t know what that myth is.” Henri’s observation underscores the way the main characters think — or try to think — of their lives in literary or narrative terms. Henri talks about his own life in precisely this way and Élizabeth keeps a sort of reflective diary. Closely connected to this is the inclusion of a number of soliloquies in which characters speak directly to the camera. But no grand myth or narrative structure materializes for the characters — and the director fails to supply one for the audience. In fact, the film stresses — both in its subplots and in the characters’ reflection on their own lives — the absence of any such knowledge.
Toward the end of the film, Élizabeth, in a conversation with her father, wonders why she should be so miserable. In response, Abel reads a lengthy passage from Nietzsche about how “seekers of knowledge” remain “unknown to themselves.” The characters in the film certainly remain unknown to themselves. It is not clear, however, that they are “seekers of knowledge” in any real sense — or that the allusions to Pascal, Nietzsche, and others add anything to the film. Which is unfortunate. The film — as they say in sports — has potential. Yet, like the Nietzschean quest for self-knowledge, it remains unrealized.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.