After the schematic dysfunctional-but-loving family antics of Nothing Like the Holidays, it was nice to watch a movie about a messed-up extended family coming together for Christmas that didn't feel the need to tie everything up neatly or provide pat answers for every conflict. The acclaimed French film A Christmas Tale, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2008, ties nothing up neatly and provides no pat answers, which can be a little irritating after two and a half hours of angst and sibling squabbles. The movie is often too ponderous for its own good, heavy with literary allusions and stylistic detours that as distracting as they are enriching.
What the movie does have going for it is an amazing cast of French all-stars, including Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Anne Consigny, Chiara Mastroianni and Melvil Poupaud. Even as their characters engage in sometimes inexplicable behavior, or treat each other with casually callous disdain, the actors make those moments feel real and meaningful, and wring every bit of honest emotion out of every action and line of dialogue. Director and co-writer Arnaud Desplechin leaves a lot unsaid, from the reason that eldest sibling Elizabeth (Consigny) has banished her brother Henri (Amalric) from her life to the outcome of the bone-marrow transplant that matriarch Junon (Deneuve) needs to save her life. Plot threads weave in and out, picked up and dropped seemingly at random, and it's often frustrating. But pick out any single moment, and what you have is often something beautiful and moving.
The family comes together because of Junon's illness, and side dramas abound as the parents, three siblings and various grandchildren and significant others stay under one roof for a few days before Christmas. This isn't a heightened melodrama, and it isn't a feel-good comedy, either, the two modes we'd expect from an American movie in this genre. It's a jumble of dark comedy and artsy drama, and Desplechin sometimes seems at odds with himself in how to present his material. In its angst and ponderousness, it's quintessentially French, and a reminder that just because we can get the whole family to come together at Christmas, that doesn't mean it'll solve any of our problems.
The True Meaning of Christmas: It provides false hope at best.