Deck the halls with boughs of holly because brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who haven't spoken to one another in 6 years are coming back home for the Christmas family reunion. Things are in a dire situation because their mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with a rare illness and needs a bone marrow transplant while Elizabeth's teenage son recently attempted to commit suicide. Smells like Christmas to me.
Desplechin has a massive story to tell. So much so that the running time of the film is a surprising 2h30. Then again, this never feels like a typical, Hollywood-esque family Holidays tale. The character relations are tragic for the most part. Henri is the black sheep of the family. His attitude towards those around him is confrontational for the part. He drinks to an excessive degree, is loud mouthed and has a knack for making people uncomfortable, or simply hate him. Anne, played with class by the beautiful Anne Consigny, is under an incredible amount of stress as her relationship with her own son is already strained due the boy's psychological condition. The relationships are complex and very well written. She doesn't need her brother's emotionally destructive behavior having any influence on her son, who is in enough trouble as it is already. She shields her son and herself from Henri therefore. It's a cold maneuver but she sticks by her principals. The movie lets us understand why everything is so bleak (including a terrible death many years ago) and allows for many, many scenes for that plot to thicken and develop. The mother does not hide her reservations regarding Henri, even when speaking face to face with him, and this makes for more than a few juicy scenes. She knows very well that she is far from the perfect mother, displaying cynicism, charm, love and at times despair. Flawed but motherly nonetheless, annoyed but accepting. All this culminates in an emotionally ambiguous final scene taking place shortly after Henri has donated some of his bone barrow to his mother. Along with the sister/brother dynamic, this is one of the better silver screen love/hate relationships this viewer has seen in quite some time.
The editing is also stylish, without ever overdoing it. I won't give too much away, but the film is divided into chapters, or acts, each one beginning with a nifty and effective visual treat. The picture is seen through a small hole surrounded by darkness, with the hole either closing in on itself or growing depending on whether the scene is coming to a close or opening. It feels like the curtains falling down or raising from the stage at the tail ends of acts in a play. The choice of using this technique is poignant for a few reasons. Henri is employed in the theater business after all and an early scene, a prologue if you will, in the film depicts how his sister Elizabeth bailed him out of debt for the last time in a court settlement. These narrative links to theater enhance the visual technique used later on and provide it a lyrical quality.
There are virtually no weak links in the acting department. Consigny, Amalric, Deneuve, Roussillon (as the father, Abel) all put on a class act for the film. This is partly do to the fact they are supremely talented and that each of those parts is well written. There is a depth to all of these characters that provides the film with that extra bit of energy and life to take it to another level beyond the typical dysfunctional family material. It's familiar yet refreshing all at once. Everything feels real and honest.
There are other characters in the film. Another brother and his wife, as well as their cousin. While there were no issues with having them in the film as a supporting cast, the movie, about one hour in, decides to provide those three with their own smaller sub plot. It's not a bad sub plot, but it never carries the weight that the bone marrow/brother and sister story does. In fact, their story only has about 20-25 minutes of screen time for itself, scattered throughout the second half of the film. It's not as engaging as the main focus of the movie and it's introduced after the viewer has invested 1 hour of his or her attention into the mother, brother, sister plot. Had it been provided its own film to breath, then all would be fine, but here it makes the second half of the film feel a bit unfocused at times. The narrative structure isn't hurt that badly, but it is odd to see this plot included so late into the story. Little wonder to movie last 2 and a half hours...
Still, the latter point did not detract too much from the enjoyment there is to be had with A Christmas Tale. Those looking for lighthearted holiday fare should look elsewhere. Despite a few clever lines and some comical scenes involving children, heavy material is dealt with here. For those looking for good drama, this might be the right gift for you.