What makes me love modern French cinema so much is its absolute go-for-broke willingness to expand the medium far beyond the typical boundaries. The best French filmmakers view their work as true art; every frame of every film is crafted with vibrance and passion, and the filmmakers utilize any and every tool in their arsenal to tell the story in the most interesting, startlingly effective manner. Even the most harshly realistic films are touched by the magic of the cinema, the sublime oddity of the bizarre. It takes a versatile, nuanced artist to understand that the surreal sometimes invades the real, that the intimate lives of everyday people need not be expressed solely through cold, boring episodes.
Arnaud Desplechin is one such artist, and A Christmas Tale is one such film. Its characters are at once quirky and completely normal--each is driven by her/his own unique set of issues, conflicts, loves, and hates, but in the end this is a film about a family that gossips like any family, that wars like any family, that loves like any family. In that sense, the film is steeped in realism, an interesting story about interesting characters. But Desplechin is not satisfied with stopping there--his goal is to push the boundaries of film as far as he deems necessary to express the emotions of these characters.
A brief plot synopsis will immediately breed skepticism in frequent or even moderately frequent moviegoers, as the bare skeleton of A Christmas Tale sounds pretty much like any quirky-family-comes-together-for-a-rocky-but-revelatory-holiday movie. The family's matriarch, Junon (the luminescent Catherine Deneuve), has just been diagnosed with cancer--the same cancer that killed her firstborn son when he was only a very small child--and is in need of a bone marrow transplant. The three surviving siblings are each racked with their own personal issues. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is locked in an eternal depression and is dealing with a teenage son with his own mental issues. Middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) is a drunk and a womanizer, the black sheep of the family and the object of Elizabeth's utter hatred. Henri was once married, but became a widower after a car accident, and has been living in a haze of anger and alcoholism ever since. Youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is vibrant and charming, with a loving wife and two young children of his own. His life seems perfect on the surface, but the nature of his character becomes clearer as the film progresses.
The beauty of A Christmas Tale lies in Desplechin's ability--aided by his expansive, talented cast--to portray a family gathering with both a gentle love and a sharp scalpel. At its core, the film is a comedy of intimate idiosyncracies. Its most defining moments, however, come almost out of nowhere, when in the midst of an otherwise entertaining scene Desplechin is able to cut right to the heart of a character's inner anguish, revealing their humanity and unleashing in the audience an unexpected sympathy, a powerful emotional connection. In the same way, Desplechin is so comfortable with his story and characters that he allows them to explode with fierce hatred in a way I haven't really seen in a film since the best of Ingmar Bergman. Desplechin, clearly, has a lighter touch, a deeper hope, and a greater love for his characters, but he is mature enough to understand the thin line between love and hate, and allows his characters to toe that line with the insecurity of real life.
A Christmas Tale is a long, detailed film, almost labyrinthine in its examination of many interconnected characters. And it roams just as freely and with as much emotional nuance as a great Altman film. In that way, it shares a connection to 2008's most obvious Altman-esque film, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, where the camera roamed throughout moments of lingering normalcy and into periodic shocks of emotional honesty. I admired Rachel, but couldn't love it like so many did; it was the year's great "either you feel it or you don't" movie.
I felt A Christmas Tale. It is funny, it is sad, it is harsh, it is revelatory...it is life, as expressed by a great artist.