tongue-tied lightning

A Christmas Tale (Desplechin, 2008)
December 16, 2008, 3:59 AM
Filed under: film


Wow.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been this moved by a film.  Arnaud Desplechin creates such a tangible world that, to wear out a cliche, you actually feel like you’re spending Christmas dinner with this family. I was discussing this film with Rouge, and she mentioned that it’s amazing how intimately you get to know the characters.  I’ve been thinking about that.  The film takes place over 4 or 5 days, less than a week anyway.  I would guess were I to spend that much time with any one of the characters I wouldn’t know them as well as I feel I know all the characters after watching the film.  That sentence isn’t entirely clear but you catch my drift.

Yes, this is another one of those movies about a dysfunctional family coming together for a big event.  This time the event is Christmas and the reason the whole family has gotten together is that their mother has been diagnosed with leukemia.  I’m sure you’ve seen several films that share this basic structure. Please don’t let that stop you from watching this one.  You would rob yourself of, what for me has been, the richest cinematic experience of the year.

I’m hard pressed to put my feelings into words.  It’s not an easy film to wrap up in a few taut paragraphs. Like the best films, it works perfectly on an emotional level and on an intellectual level, but I think calling it a perfect film would be a bit of a stretch.  There is the old adage about throwing everything up against the wall and keeping whatever sticks.  I feel like Desplechin has done this, but everything stuck!  What we end up with is a film that is a bit ragged around the edges, but no lesser for it.

It jumps from style to style, sometimes abruptly.  There will be an iris effect for a few seconds or it will switch into split screen for a second with no explanation.  There are interesting title cards and bits of animation that pop up as the family is introduced.  Characters talk to the camera.  Each day they spend at the parents house is given a title card with a word on it I suppose you could interpret as the theme of that segment.  Desplechin jumps from style to style, sometimes it resembles the French New Wave, othertimes it reminded me of the faux-documentary style Romanian films like The Death of Mr. Lazerescu.  There are times it reminded me of Wes Anderson, who I don’t necessarily like that much, however the times it did worked, within context.  There is even a very overt reference to Vertigo.  I would imagine there are several other references I missed completely.


The acting is astounding, to list the standouts would be to list the cast.  I will say, Matthieu Amalric impressed me most.  As the dark horse of the family, who has indeed been more or less excommunicated for the last five years, he isn’t the most likeable character.  However, Amalric plays him wonderfully, making him human and allowing you to empathize with him.  Chiara Mastroianni’s arc is quite engaging.  I related most to the grandson Paul, played by Emile Berling.  Most likely because I went through things very similar to what he goes through in the film at his age.

The plot kind of wobbles back and forth, moving itself forward slowly and awkwardly like an elephant.  This is never a detriment, it lends the film a certain kind of charm.  Occasionally you are shown a scene that would’ve been cut out of almost any other film.  Sometimes you notice this, sometimes you don’t, but you never regret it.  You treasure the time you are given with these characters and want as much of it you can get.  While some scenes may seem superfluous viewed from the standpoint of plot, there is never a scene that doesn’t lend you new insights into the characters.  Getting to know the characters is the chief joy of this film.

That’s not to say there is no plot.  The leukemia plotline that drives the film is handled well.  Catherine Deneuve, as the matriarch of the family, affects a kind of laissez-faire attitude towards her ailment.  This keeps the audience from taking it too seriously and lends the film a bit of lightness.  It allows it to avoid melodrama and keeps it from veering too far into the waters of tragedy.  The climax of this plotline is extremely visceral.  I suppose it’s possible this comes more from my fear of hospitals than the film itself, but it had quite an impact on me.

Desplechin brings the movie together quite beautifully with the final scene.  A review I read (I can’t remember which) said it made you realize he knew what he was doing all along.  This is true.  He puts an elegant bow on his package.  Sure it’s a bit lumpy, there’s alot of tape on it and the wrapping paper is wrinkled in spots, but it’s what’s inside that matters.  I expect it’s the best Christmas present I’ll get this year.



2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Lovely ❤ I’m happy you liked it as much as I did, I think the best comparison I can make is that it’s like The Godfather without crime and in French… and better.

Comment by mrsemmapeel

haha, that is actually a very apt comparison. i think i prefer it to the godfather as well. it hit me more on a gut level. it’s more relatable.

Comment by justin

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