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With: Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto, Emile Berling, Thomas Obled, Clément Obled, Françoise Bertin, Samir Guesmi, Azize Kabouche
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 152
Date: 05/16/2008

A Christmas Tale (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Holiday Jeer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Arnaud Desplechin's films (Esther Kahn, Kings and Queen, etc.) can hardly be called streamlined. They're fragmented, compartmentalized, and ever-shifting, but they're also constantly alive and endlessly fascinating. This time out, he takes on the traditional family holiday gathering, as previously seen in films like Home for the Holidays, Pieces of April and The Family Stone, but gives it new soul. Catherine Denueve stars as Junon, the mother of three grown children. She and her husband, the toad-like but charming Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), had a fourth child that died of leukemia, and now Junon has been diagnosed with the same thing. Hearing this, her children and grandchildren put their various grudges aside and assemble for Christmas. Eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) has refused to ever see middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) again, but makes do. Elizabeth's son teenage Paul (Emile Berling) is an emotional wreck, and has already been checked into a hospital for a nervous meltdown. It turns out that Paul is a bone marrow match for Junon, but so is Henri. Junon's youngest, the sensitive Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), is also on hand with his two sons and beautiful wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni). Cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) turns up, too, but for his own emotional reasons. To round things out, we even get the lesbian lover of Abel's late mother. For 152 minutes Desplechin blows through all the various tormented and twisted relationships, aided by the fact that Henri doesn't particularly care what anyone thinks of him (he often speaks his mind). Henri has brought along his new Jewish girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), who very often speaks her mind as well. Characters often begin down one narrative road, then double back and start again. Yet the movie never feels crowded; it helps that the huge house has plenty of places for characters to hide, smoke, drink or read by themselves. Call me nuts, but even with all the dysfunction and suffering, I found lots to cherish about this artistically personal holiday film. It may even become a future Christmas classic in my house! (Mathieu Amalric and Anne Consigny are both fresh from last year's French "disease of the week" classic: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.)

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