Timely release: A CHRISTMAS TALE

For better or for worse the holidays mean family – lots and lots of family. We make the trip back home, sleep on the fold-out couch and make strained conversation with the ornery aunt or cousin or brother no one really wanted to invite in the first place. Maybe this is why director Arnaud Desplechin titled his most recent effort about complicated and strained family relationships A CHRISTMAS TALE. Christmas and family, the two are synonymous. Desplechin’s tale follows the Vuillard’s, a family whose relationships are more strained than most, and what happens when they all come together to celebrate Christmas and wish their mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), well before her upcoming bone marrow transplant.

In one of the two documentaries featured on the new Criterion release, Desplechin explains that he was trying to take a family estranged for reasons no one really knows and their mother’s strange sickness and weave through it the traditional “magic of Christmas” narrative. The result is perhaps more realistic and less fantastical than Desplechin intended, though it certainly is larger than life. Junon and her husband seem unnaturally distant from their children, and of course there’s Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), the eldest child, and her unexplained banishment of Henri (Mathieu Amalric), her alcoholic, melancholy bum of a brother. This banishment, which has torn apart the family for years, ends suddenly when Henri shows up at his family’s Christmas gathering.

In Desplechin’s world, however, no one tries to play nice. Worlds collide in the course of a few days, but there is no Christmas miracle; that part of the narrative tradition is left out. The past is dredged up, but nothing about it is revealed. We still don’t know any more about the banishment or Junon’s absentee mothering than we did in the beginning of the film, and the family departs with more questions, perhaps, than they had when they arrived. They argue and explore nearly every unexplained event from their past, but stay well away from the truth; To really scratch below the surface might tear the family apart for good, so everything is swept back under the rug and forgotten – for another year at least. Frustrating, yes, but is this not how a family works, whether a pleasant Christmas is at stake or not?