Early critical response to A Christmas Tale repeatedly insisted that here’s the proverbial Desplechin film for people who don’t like Desplechin, in the same way that Kent Jones claimed Regular Lovers was “a Garrel film for people who don’t know or don’t like other Garrel films.” Except Jones didn’t mean it as harshly as it sounded (he wrote the liner notes for the DVD, after all), and saying Desplechin’s film is more accessible than his past work should in no way imply compromise. A Christmas Tale doesn’t synthesize everything Desplechin’s been working on since 1991’s La Vie Des Morts—how could any one film capture the scope of Desplechin’s relentlessly schizophrenic interests?—but it’s the most coherent alchemy of Morts, My Sex Life and Kings And Queen we’re ever likely to get. It’s not dilution; it’s clarity.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the seasonal, unsurprisingly acrimonious reunion of the Vuillard clan: cancer-stricken mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve), gravel-voiced paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Paul Roussilon), alcoholic son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), golden child Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), depressive Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), and a host of assorted partners, cousins and hangers-on. It’s a family reunion in more ways than one: all the above-named players (minus Poupaud) are veterans of at least one Desplechin film. Nearing 50, Desplechin has found an ensemble cast that, like Ford’s favored players, should keep him going for a long time yet. He’s daring to reference his own filmography extensively for the first time, moving beyond thematic continuity: the pleasure of seeing Amalric and his long-suffering My Sex Life girlfriend Emmanuelle Devos reunited (this time with the balance of power firmly in her hands) is not to be underestimated. There’s also the kick of seeing one Paul Dedalus (Emile Berling) as Henri’s nephew: Paul Dedalus, of course, was Amalric’s name in My Sex Life, and the transference of neuroticism from one generation to the next is befitting.
Other references have more to offer than the (undeniable but indescribable) pleasure of watching a group of talented people age together on-screen in a world of their making. Consider a brief shot (five seconds long) in which Desplechin crams in three allusions: Devos rounds a corner in a museum, coming across Deneuve sitting in rapt contemplation of a painting. Denueve’s bright red jacket and gaze easily conjure up Vertigo; the upper-right corner of the frame shows a part of the painting, a swan. Desplechin’s long-standing fascination with mythology reminds us of Leda and the swan; that, in turn, takes us back to Kings And Queen, whose repeated references to the myth fascinated its admirers (and maddened detractors) without anyone agreeing on what it meant.
I’m still not sure what it meant in Kings And Queen, but I think I’ve finally cracked the mystery of Desplechin’s fascination with myth. Consider first the names on display (Juno(n), Devos’ Faunia): Desplechin’s interests are eclectic, but rarely random provocations designed to frustrate audiences. Early on, Henri announces that he’s “part of a myth, but I don’t know what myth means.” Well, for starters: it means one story that’s part of an enveloping fabric of hundreds of others, a story that might appear bizarre, arcane and unrelatable without context. (Such as, e.g., a story about a god-swan raping a woman.) And this is, unfortunately, the way families work as well: they’re tight-knit groups of people who long ago failed to understand why they turned out the way they did in relation to each other, relying on shorthand that confuses outsiders as much as themselves. Why does Elizabeth hate Henri as much as she does? Neither one of them knows.
But there’s another thing: a myth is something that resonates because it will not go away. Which is what A Christmas Tale (and, ultimately, Desplechin’s filmography) seems to be about. The typical home-for-the-holidays family movie has an easy, comfortable arc to deliver catharsis on schedule: first everyone pretends nothing is wrong, then everyone explodes, cries and reconciles, having lanced and salved their long-simmering resentments. A Christmas Tale begins in a state of naked, open animosity and never heals. The point isn’t that all will be well after things are brought out into the open; the point is that things will never be OK, and once you acknowledge that, you can begin to live with the trauma for the rest of your life. Late in the film, cousin Simon (Laurent Capelutto), confessing to a long-deferred love, insists that everything he does—dressing, talking, whatever—is for his lost love. “My painting is for myself,” he clarifies. Desplechin’s familial trauma is constant, but his art is for himself.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.