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A Christmas Tale (2008)

  • Film
Un Conte de Noel
Photograph: Canal+/New Wave Films

Time Out says

The 100 best French films

This film ranked #68 in Time Out's list of the 100 greatest French films. Click here to see the full list. 

Director: Arnaud Desplechin

It may still be Christmas for the troubled Vuillard clan in the northwest French town of Roubaix but it’s not shared seasonal goodwill that’s bringing this extended brood back together in the family home. The instigator is mother and grandmother Junon (Catherine Deneuve), who’s treating family ties as a business arrangement and calling in a genetic favour: this distant matriarch has the same disease that years ago killed her first son by her older, softer husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and now she wants one of her three adult kids, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) or Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) to donate blood marrow to increase her chances of survival.

For Desplechin, whose preference is for sprawling, talky ensemble pieces (‘Kings and Queen’, ‘Ma Vie Sexuelle’), Junon’s crisis is little more than an excuse to explore endless family rifts, hidden desires, past traumas and emotional diversions. The effect flits between the wearying (not helped by the running time and a distancing early section) and the engrossing as some storylines and characters work far more than others. It’s Amalric who entertains the most with the bizarre Henri, the drunken, wayward son whom his mother openly dislikes and whose financial disasters have estranged him from his more straight-backed sister Elizabeth. 

In Henri’s tow is a new, amused, unflappable girlfriend, Nora, played warmly by Emmanuelle Devos. Elsewhere, though, it’s hard to buy Ivan’s reaction when his wife spends a night with his cousin – just one of too many character or story moments that jar. You could, of course, forgive the whole enterprise as the extravagances of an intellectual fairytale, but the film’s wayward eccentricities outweigh its good performances and breezy telling of a jumble of a plot.

Written by Dave Calhoun
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