In all likelihood, you won't find a more jacked-up family at the movies this holiday season than the Vuillards, the clan that's front and center in Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale." (And yes, I am counting the family from "Rachel Getting Married.")
Let's start at the head of the table. There's Junon (Catherine Deneuve, who's still got it at 65), the matriarch of the brood. Unfortunately, she's suffering from a degenerative, terminal cancer (similar to the one that took away her firstborn son as kid) and needs a bone-marrow transplant if she's gonna make it through a few more years. Husband and patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) makes the decision -- or the mistake, whichever you prefer -- of rounding up the kids, grandkids and other family to spend the holidays together.
Let's break them down, shall we?
- Daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), the silently angry eldest, has a son, Paul (Emile Berling), who's compatible for his grandma's transplant. But, unfortunately, Paul is going through some things, like getting hospitalized after suffering a mental breakdown.
- Middle child Henri (recent Bond villain Mathieu Almaric) is also compatible. But since he's something of an obnoxious, irresponsible mess (not to mention a possible manic-depressive), the family -- especially Elizabeth, who once paid off his debts so she could banish him from her life -- would rather not deal with him. He shows up anyway, bringing with him his mysterious Jewish girlfriend (Emmanuelle Devos), who is constantly amused by Henri and his family's eccentric behavior. (A running gag in the movie has most of the family members comparing her behind to Angela Bassett's.)
- Baby boy Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), ironically the least manic of the bunch despite having mental issues himself as a teen, shows up as well with his childhood-sweetheart wife (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's daughter) and two boys. Also along for the ride is his painter cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), who has some long-unrequited feelings for Ivan's wife.
Practically brash in its unsentimentality (most of the Vuillard fam have no qualms about nonchalantly, almost comically, expressing their contempt for each other), "Tale" is pretty much this year's Christmas Movie for People Who Hate Christmas Movies -- and it doesn't even star Billy Bob Thornton!
While the Francophobe in me has issues with the detached, almost snarky, undeniably French attitude co-writer/director Desplechin uses to dole out the story (it has perhaps the most quietly accepted, understanding scene of adultery I've ever seen in a movie), I'd be lying if I said I wasn't bowled over by the way Des- plechin directs this thing. Much like a plate-spinner, Desplechin keeps many things going on at once, and it's amazing the movie doesn't come to a crashing thud.
While the movie has the same visual and narrative unpredictability and length of his last film, "Kings & Queen," "Tale" is more fluent in its double-stuffed storytelling. You eventually learn there are more deep, complicated issues in the family, issues that have defined who they are as people, than they would care to admit. You almost don't mind that there's so much stuff going on, and you may need to take in more screenings to suck it all in.
Of course, in its own obviously off-kilter fashion, "A Christmas Tale" preaches the importance of family. Right from the jump, Desplechin has the Vuillard family instantly realize what tons of families this time of year almost refuse to acknowledge: You're all stuck together, so you might as well make the best of it.