Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) (2008, Director: Arnaud Desplechin): Much like family life itself, Desplechin’s film about a profoundly dysfunctional family coming together over the holidays is chaotic, confusing, messy and a little bit infuriating at times. The director uses some very old melodramatic gimmicks (iris effects, stagey intertitles) and even has his actors address the audience several times in an effort to provide the amount of exposition needed to keep this thing going. For me, it was only partially successful, and too much plot summary here would threaten to blow up the word count exponentially. I’ll try to be concise.
Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the rather chilly matriarch to three children. A fourth (the firstborn) died of leukemia in childhood, and his absence haunts the film, since the other children were conceived in a futile bid to find a bone marrow donor to save him. Now she has developed the same type of cancer and also needs a bone marrow transplant. The only two compatible donors are her son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the family screw-up, and the teenage son of her daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who himself is suffering after a mental breakdown. To make matters worse, Elizabeth “banished” Henri from the family five years earlier, for reasons that seem unclear. There’s plenty of other family intrigue at work as well and no one comes off as wholly sympathetic. Despite that, I was heartened that by the end there had been some tentative (re)connections formed.
It felt to me very much like Un conte de Noël was a melodrama trying to both poke fun at its melodramatic elements and rise above them. There was some fine ensemble acting (Deneuve and Amalric stand out in particular), and a few clever medical metaphors (Junon’s family fear that her body will “reject” Henri’s marrow, in the same way Elizabeth fears Henri’s “poisonous” influence on her son; Junon doesn’t trust marrow from Elizabeth’s “crazy” son), but overall the film left me a bit underwhelmed, especially in light of its 140 minute length.