Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Tale

Directed by Arnaud Desplechin with a script co-written with Emmanuel Bourdieu.  Un conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) tells the story of a family with strained relationships towards one another to reunite for the holidays as they learn that their mother has leukemia.  Upon this news, the children deal with their own issues as well as the fraught relationship they have towards their parents.  Starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric,, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, and Hippolyte Giradot.  Un conte de Noel is a witty yet somber film from Arnaud Desplechin.

Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) has just received some terrifying news as she is suffering from a rare disease that can lead to leukemia.  Her only chance to beat the disease is a bone-marrow transplant as her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is helping out.  With the Christmas holiday approaching, Junon decides it’s time for the whole family to come together which will prove to be a difficult task.  The eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is having her own issues while her 16-year old son Paul (Emile Berling) is suffering from mental illness.  With her husband Claude (Hippolyte Giradot) often at work and trying to help, Elizabeth’s youngest brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) makes a visit to help Paul out.  Both siblings decide to go as Ivan has already sent his twin sons Basile and Baptiste (Thomas and Clement Obled) to their grandparents.

The only other sibling that hasn’t learned about Junon or anything is Henri (Mathieu Amalric).  Having been through a lot of trouble while drinking a lot, he hasn’t seen his parents for six years.  After losing a lot of money six years ago, Elizabeth paid off Henri’s debts with the condition that he mustn’t see his parents nor Elizabeth.  Henri has kept his promise though the only family members he has contacted are Ivan and their cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto).  Simon is a painter who has had a hard time dealing with alcoholism while helping out with his uncle Abel’s fabric dyeing plant.  Then one day, Paul decides to meet his uncle Henri revealing what’s happening to Junon as he asks him to attend the holidays.

After writing a letter to Elizabeth, Henri reveals he will be going since he and Paul are the only family members who have the blood type needed for Junon’s bone-marrow transplant.  Elizabeth dreads the day of Henri’s arrival as Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) arrive with Simon while Elizabeth arrives with Paul at the family home.  With Henri expected to arrive on Christmas Eve, he instead appears two days early with his girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) in tow.  His appearance has received mixed notices as Elizabeth remains cold towards him while Junon is aware that Henri hates her despite going along with the blood test.

With the days of Christmas and Christmas Eve approaching, everyone tries to get along though Henri doesn’t make it easy.  Even to the point when a visiting Claude decides to beat him up and leave for a day.  Even as Henri continues to drink while hide Paul’s medication with Paul becoming more nervous about being a donor and the idea that Henri might be his father.  Faunia spends time with the family as she goes to a museum where she finds Junon where the two went shopping.  When a friend of Abel’s mother Rosaimee (Francoise Bertin) visits for the holiday, she sees how much fun Henri and Ivan are having with fireworks while Simon is not involved as Sylvia notices.  Rosaimee reveals that Simon holds a torch for Sylvia.  Faunia leaves to be with her family though she had a good time despite all of the family drama that is happening. 

On Christmas Eve, the tension between Elizabeth and Henri is still boiling though things remain calm during the dinner until Simon disappears following Midnight Mass.  With Sylvia eventually finding him, Henri turns to Paul to help him calm down his fears as the family await the day of Junon’s surgery.

Most film about family gatherings during the Christmas holidays are often comical and at times, dramatic.  This film however, is different because it revolves around lots of family tension when its matriarch is suffering from a life-threatening disease.  Yet, the film opens with the tale of another member of the Vuillard family that isn’t seen.  The eldest child Joseph who died at the age of six as he is the source of grief for Elizabeth as she fears death and the source of guilt for Henri.  While Ivan wasn’t born when Joseph died, he is seen as the child that tries to be the mediator.

When they all get together, everything is tense though everyone is trying to get along.  It’s a film about family and their dysfunctions with one person in Faunia being the outsider.  While there’s a lot of drama and some moments of goofing off, it’s all about the possibility of spending the last Christmas with Junon as she faces her bone-marrow transplant from two family members.  Both of which, are messes in different ways.  The film’s screenplay does an excellent job in exploring the characters and their dysfunctions though it is flawed.  Even as some of the characters and their actions aren’t defined clearly.

Arnaud Desplechin’s direction is truly hypnotic for the way he captures many of the film’s intimate yet troubling scenes.  Particularly in the family drama where he can mix a scene of tension while inter-cutting it with something as innocent and comical.  The humor is subtle while the drama is mostly underplayed except for some of the actions of Henri.  Desplechin always keep the camera focused on what is happening and who the characters are looking at.  Even as he gives characters a chance to break the fourth wall either to reveal parts of their home or serving as narrators about the letters they’ve written.  The film’s opening begins with a funeral that is followed by a puppet-like play about the family and the loss of Joseph.  Though the running time of 152-minutes seems like a stretch and the film lags in some places.  Desplechin creates a solid yet provocative film about families during the holidays.

Cinematographer Eric Gautier brings a lush, colorful look to some of the film’s dream-like sequences and nighttime exteriors as it is shot on location in Roubaix.  Most of the daytime scenes is shot with a mixture of light-blue and gray for the mood of winter with some sunlight shown.  Gautier’s work is superb for its mood and dream-like textures for some of the film’s romantic or surreal moments from the perspective of Paul.  Editor Laurence Briaud does some excellent work with the film’s stylized editing while maintaining a leisured pace for the film though it does lag in some parts of the film.

Production designer Dan Bevan does a spectacular job with the look of the family home that is surrounded by pictures and all sorts of holiday stuff while maintaining a realness that families can relate to.  Costume designer Nathalie Raoul does a wonderful job with the costumes from the ragged look of Henri to the more regal look that Junon has with her dresses.  Sound editor Nicolas Cantin, along with mixers Sylvain Malbrant and Jean-Pierre Laforce, do some excellent work with the film’s sound to convey the atmosphere of the family home along with everything else outside of the home.  Music composer Gregoire Hetzel brings a lovely, elegant score that is a mixture of plaintive yet soft orchestral pieces and a harpsichord track that is really wonderful.  The rest of the film’s soundtrack is mostly filled with pop tunes and Xmas classics.

The cast is definitely wonderful with standouts from small appearances from Azize Kabouche as Elizabeth’s shrink and Samir Guesmi as Spatafora, a friend of the family that Ivan and Simon knew.  Thomas and Clemente Obled are wonderfully charming as the twin boys Basile and Baptiste with their joyful innocence while Emile Berling is great as the mentally-troubled Paul who is seeking some comfort from his family while dealing with his mother’s melancholic mood.  Hippolyte Giradot is excellent as Elizabeth’s husband Claude who despises Henri while he helps out Abel with the idea that Junon might live longer if she didn’t take the surgery immediately.  Laurent Capelluto is very good as Simon, a quiet artist who drinks to soothe his own issues while carrying a torch for Sylvia.  Emmanuelle Devos is also good as Faunia, Henri’s girlfriend who has a brief bond with Junon while trying to observe the chaos of Henri’s family.

Francoise Bertin is amazing in her small but memorable role as Rosaimee, an old friend of Abel’s mother who recalls the good days when Elizabeth, Henri, Ivan, and Simon were just kids.  Chiara Mastroianni is brilliant as Sylvia, Ivan’s wife who is not liked by Junon though is willing to be the joyful mom as she plays a princess for her twin boys’ play while dealing with Simon’s own feelings for her.  Melvil Poupaud is great as Ivan, the youngest child of the family who tries to help Paul while being a mediator between his siblings as he is also the most youthful and vibrant person in the family.  Jean-Paul Roussillon is wonderful as Abel, the patriarch of the family who is trying to deal with all of the family drama as well as his wife Junon as he and Catherine Deneuve have a great yet understated chemistry.

Anne Consigny is superb as Elizabeth, Paul’s melancholic mother who still holds a grudge towards her younger brother Henri.  Consigny’s performance is definitely marvelous to watch as someone trying to keep her cool while dealing with the idea that she might lose her mother sooner than she thought.  Mathieu Amalric is amazing as Henri, the middle child who is an admitted fuck-up while trying to deal with his own issues.  Amalric gives a performance that is both comical and dramatic where he can be charming but also play a dickhead.  It’s definitely a fun performance to watch. 

Finally, there’s the luminous Catherine Deneuve in a radiant performance as Junon.  Deneuve’s performance shows a regality that isn’t seen very much in a lot of actors or actresses as Deneuve plays it calm and with such subtlety as a woman who is aware that she might die.  Yet, she somehow accepts it somewhat along with the idea that she will be saved.  It’s definitely a performance that is filled with class and dignity and who better to show than the legendary Catherine Deneuve.

Un conte de Noel is a superb yet enchanting film from Arnaud Desplechin featuring top-notch performances from Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, and Anne Consigny.  While some viewers might have a hard time understanding the characters along with how the French do Christmas.  It is still a film that people could relate to though it doesn’t have the kind of slapstick humor that most American viewers could familiarize with.  It’s definitely a film that truly captures the drama and hilarity of a family coming together for the holidays.  In the end, Un conte de Noel is a remarkable film from Arnaud Desplechin.

© thevoid99 2010

No comments: