Family get togethers are always tricky. Even in the best of situations they mean seeing and interacting with family that one tries to avoid for the other 364 days of the year. For the most part, they’re rather uneventful events but in the movies, it’s always about the drama. Such is the case with Arnaud Desplechin’s painfully long, over dramatic A Christmas Tale.
The film opens beautifully with a telling of the family history in shadow-puppet but it’s at this point that the film stops being interesting. Almost immediately we are introduced to the players: Junon, the matriarch of the clan who was recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness (one which appears similar to what killed her young son), Elizabeth, the eldest daughter dealing with depression and the possibility that her son is schizophrenic, Ivan, the youngest son who seems to be sleepwalking through the story and then there’s Henri, the middle son who has been banished from the family by his elder sister. The reason for the banishment is played out early on in the film and outside of the shadow-puppets, it’s the most interesting few minutes of film because from then on, this plays out like a never ending string of tragic events. In most instances, that would likely be entertaining but there’s no emotional attachment to the characters which made sitting through the predicaments painful.
In and of themselves, the performances are very good. Of the three children, Mathieu Amalric’s Henri is the stand out. His take on the self-destructive yet apparently blind to the consequences son, is brilliant. Henry is cocky but there is an air of remorse when he visits his sick mother for the holidays. And then there’s the always brilliant Catherine Deneuve who takes the role of the sick mother to another level. The problem comes from the fact that Deneuve seems to be in an altogether different film. She comes across as emotionally removed where as everyone else in the film is drowning in their anger, hate and desperation and though it may work for some, it kept me distanced from her, the one person the audience should feel some emotional connection with after all, she is dying.
And that gets to the major flaw of the film: its disconnected emotions. Yes, the stories are tragic and the constant barrage of breakdowns is staggering but for the most part, they seem to be happening to someone else. The characters never feel like real people and hence, we can’t relate to them, their emotions or their dire situations.
Days after I’ve seen the film, I’m still wondering what the point was. Yes, it’s a nice looking film but it fails to be breathtaking and I get the sense that Desplechin is more interested in telling the story of this family’s reunion than in breaking any visual rules. Unfortunately, the cast of characters are anything but appealing and seeing them suffer is neither entertaining nor emotionally compelling.
There was one brief moment of joy: when the credits began to roll and I got up to stretch my legs. At the end of a long day, sitting in one position for 150 minutes can be draining.