If the title “A Christmas Tale” summons up visions of family warmth and tenderness, get ready for anything but that in this fascinating, gut-punching story that explores the kind of damage and emotional wounds that only blood relatives can inflict upon each other.
A brief prologue sets the stage: Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) give birth to a son who, at an early age, becomes ill with leukemia that can be only be treated with a bone marrow transplant. Neither parent nor their infant daughter Elizabeth is able to do so, but mom and dad conceive another child, Henri, who in the womb is also rejected as a donor. After the oldest child dies, Junon gives birth one more time, to Ivan.
This backstory is vital to their current relationships — now that the children are adults, both parents dote on the tightly wound Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and tolerate Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) with amusement, but Junon has resented Henri (Mathieu Amalric) since before his birth, and their relationship has remained chilly when it’s not downright vicious.
Because of some financial chicanery, Henri had been exiled from the family five years earlier by the embittered Elizabeth. This Christmas, however, news comes that necessitates a reluctant reunion: Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia herself, and everyone in the family must be tested as a possible marrow donor.
It speaks volumes about Junon’s maternal instincts that she is willing to accept a transplant from Elizabeth’s troubled son Paul (Emile Berling), even if the operation might kill him and even if the possibility exists that her disease might not progress. Elizabeth herself isn’t above offering Paul for the transplant if it means keeping Henri out of the process.
So yes, not a lot of hugging in this movie. But “A Christmas Tale” brilliantly captures the melancholy and familial recrimination that, for some people, is as much a part of the holiday season as fruitcake and egg nog.
Director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote with Emmanuel Bourdieu) keeps this bleak examination of human nature fascinating by filling his story with fascinating characters — besides the central family, there’s Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s daughter), who discovers that her husband’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) may be harboring deeper feelings for her than she had suspected. There’s also Henri’s girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) who gets a crash course in this family’s eccentricities, as well as Rosaimée (Françoise Bertin), the aged lover of Abel’s late mother.
I’ve admittedly never been a huge fan of Desplechin’s talky dramedies (“My Sex Life… Or, How I Got Into an Argument,” “Kings & Queen”), but this time, his characters aren’t terminal navel-gazers with an inordinate love of the sound of their own voices. I was never less than engrossed by this family and its deep-seated hostilities, and the cast shines without sentimentalizing or softening these uniquely brittle creations.
Deneuve , of course, is one of the cinema’s last goddesses, and Amalric (currently vexing 007 in “Quantum of Solace”), Mastroianni and Poupaud bounce off her and the rest of the cast brilliantly.
If you find yourself overdosing on sweetness of the season, “A Christmas Tale” will deliver a few well-placed thorns to your holiday wreath.