The French Institute in South Kensington, possibly the most ‘French’ part of London, has recently renovated its cinema (unsurprisingly called Ciné Lumière). Catherine Deneuve reopened the cinema earlier this month and she leads an all-star cast in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. It seemed to me like a perfect choice – a rich mixture of French bourgeois relationships simmering and brought to the boil over the ‘festive’ season. Readers of this blog will know that we are wary of the bourgeoisie as a subject, but here I think there are reasons why the film is both enjoyable and worthwhile. I confess that I struggled for the first half hour or so in an overheated cinema (with comfortable seats and lots of leg room) at the end of a long day. The opening introduces a host of family and friends through sometimes elliptical sequences. Gradually, I managed to figure out who was who and the last half of the film was very rewarding as realisation of what some of the narrative strands might deliver slowly seeped in. The whole film is 150 minutes, but I’d watch it again, if only to try to hear all the the wide variety of music extracts and to puzzle out the literary references and those parts of the plot I still didn’t understand.
In genre terms, it’s a classic family melodrama (I think calling it a comedy/drama is quite misleading – there are comic moments, but it is all about relationships). It’s also an ‘ensemble piece’ in formal terms, with the multi-stranded narrative that implies and finally it could be assigned a tighter generic repertoire based on the timespan across a particular festive period. I think the film would probably be tough for younger students (and it’s too long for classroom use), but older students could find it both engaging and useful. It cries out to be compared with Hollywood and with similar films from China/Hong Kong and Japan. The first major difference may be that the film was not marketed in France as a ‘Christmas film’ (it came out in May). However, in America, its limited release was around Thanksgiving – possibly a more relevant American festival with the convention that family members try to return to the family home for the Thanksgiving dinner. The other odd dimension of A Christmas Tale is that although many of the aspects of a French Christmas are depicted, nobody is really seen cooking or eating to any great extent. The only (quasi-) American Thanksgiving film that I can remember is Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking (2001) which features several families from different ethnic groups in Los Angeles trying to cook and get through the dinner. It did occur to me that A Christmas Tale is almost a provocation to American audiences. Those critics who respond to French Cinema have named it as one of the films of the year – various ‘users’ on IMDB have called it one of the most boring films ever made! I can’t really see the boring criticism, but I’m not surprised at bafflement.
The central family is the Vuillards – three generations of the French middle class in the town of Roubaix in the North East, situated between Lille and the Belgian border. It’s the director’s home town and, I noticed in doing the research, twinned with my nearest UK city, Bradford. This isn’t so surprising since the two locations have wool textile manufacturing as central to their history. (As an aside, it’s a shame that we don’t see more of the town.) Abel Vuillard, the paterfamilias played by Jean-Paul Roussillon, is a textile dyer with his own small company. With his wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), he has three adult children, played by Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri) and Melvil Poupaud (Ivan). He also took in Simon, his nephew, played by Laurent Capelluto, who grew up with his cousins. Elizabeth has a son with her husband and Ivan has two small boys with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Tragedy has already struck the family twice with the early death of the first Vuillard child, Joseph from leukaemia at the age of 6, and Henri’s wife Madeline in an accident. Now it appears that Junon has a blood cancer and only a bone marrow transplant from someone in the family can give her the prospect of at least a couple of years more. Only Elizabeth’s teenage son and his uncle Henri, the family’s ‘black sheep’, are compatible. But Elizabeth hates her brother and has vowed never to see him again. It doesn’t look like Christmas will be peaceful. Elizabeth’s husband (played by Hippolyte Girardot) flits in and out and the only other two characters who join the party are an elderly friend of Abel’s mother and Henri’s girlfriend, played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.
The American model for the ‘ensemble piece’ might be Robert Altman’s films – possibly The Wedding, but in my view rather more Altman’s last (and under-valued) film, Prairie Home Companion with its thematic of impending death and feuding ‘family’ members. The review in Sight & Sound is by Ginette Vincendeau, doyenne of British based French Cinema academics. She argues that the film is a mix of auteurist cinema and popular entertainment (i.e. in the playing of the star cast), citing the success in France that brought in 500,000 admissions. The genre base does allow a range of other repertoires to be plundered, so as well as the comedy moments, there is certainly romance as well as the possibility of a medical thriller, but overall I think that the auteurist touches predominate. There is so much music of every conceivable genre, references to several films ranging from Funny Face and The Ten Commandments (is this the French equivalent of The Great Escape as the ultimate Christmas movie?) to what I now learn was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I had assumed it was Cocteau). Others have spotted Vertigo references (which I think did dimly impinge on my consciousness, but there was so much else going on I didn’t really notice). Vincendeau suggests that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Renoir’s La Règle du jeu are also referenced, but I thought more about Jane Austen when the children put on a Christmas play. I’d like to find out what the German text was that is quoted extensively from a book heavily annotated in French. I’ve read that it was possibly Kant.
Throughout the narrative, there are mysteries, some of which are revealed, others not. Letters and photographs, family stories – why does it matter that Henri’s girlfriend is Jewish? One of the strands that worked well, I thought was the attempt to represent the disease which might kill Junon through a metaphor using mythological figures. The chimera, made up of parts from different animals, stands in perhaps for the DNA of the Vuillard clan. But Desplechin denies us narrative satisfaction. The ending of the film is open. I’m certainly willing to have another go at uncovering the different strands and this was one bourgeois tale that worked for me. 2008 seems to have been an excellent year for French films – at least from the ones released in the UK.