Performances and direction, rather than the yards of inconclusive dialogue, are what keep Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” from curdling in its own juices. Dysfunctional family ensembler, just about held in focus by Catherine Deneuve’s regal perf as a mother who’s been diagnosed with liver cancer, is more tolerable and less pretentious than some of Desplechin’s previous talkfests, like “How I Got Into an Argument” or “In the Company of Men,” but beyond Gaul faces only minimal business from hardcore addicts of the helmer and gabby French cinema.
Film must be the only one ever to be inspired by a treatise on transplants: “La greffe,” by psychoanalyst Jacques Ascher and hematologist Jean-Pierre Jouet. The notional center of the pic is, indeed, that: the search among the extended family of Junon Vuillard (Deneuve) for a compatible donor who can give her a bone-marrow transplant, and maybe extend her life for a couple of years. But Desplechin and co-scripter Emmanuel Bordieu fail to transmute the material into anything really dramatic, touching on but not developing subsidiary themes like inherited guilt or familial debt owed to one’s parents.
Auds coming unprepared to the movie may spend the opening reels just sorting out the large cast of characters and involved family history, though to Desplechin’s credit he does help to steer the viewer with frequent captions (“The Eldest,” “The Middle Son,” etc.) that help in the early stages.
Junon and her husband, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), had two children, Elizabeth and Joseph. When Joseph developed lymphoma, and none of the family proved compatible for a bone-marrow transplant, the couple conceived a third child, Henri; but he, too, proved incompatible and Joseph died at age seven. Six years later, Junon and Abel had another child, Ivan, and life stumbled on.
Now, Junon herself is suffering from the same rare genetic condition that she passed on to Joseph, and needs to find a compatible family member for a similar transplant. The only ones who can help her are Paul (Emile Berling), distressed son of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot), and Henri (Mathieu Amalric). They and the rest of the extended family gather at the family home in Roubaix, near Lille, over Christmas, and as usual in a holiday get-togethers, tensions are never far below the surface.
Self-styled family head Elizabeth hasn’t seen or spoken to Henri since she “banished” him after settling his debts in a messy court case years ago. Hard-drinking Henri turns up with a g.f., Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), who’s almost as wacky as he is, while Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and Junon’s nephew, Simon (Laurent Capelluto), kind of hang around on the periphery with no real connection to the main drama.
Largely thanks to the snappy editing, short scenes and a strong cast led by a matronly Deveuve and Amalric’s enjoyable perf as the black sheep of the family, “A Christmas Tale” never devolves into a tedious two-and-a-half hours of self-examination. But it also never goes very far, either. Script ends with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “What does it all matter anyway? Who takes life seriously?”
Aside from the emotionally wound-up Elizabeth, who takes it upon herself to assume the entire burden of family guilt, the Vuillards are a pretty easygoing bunch. Junon seems hardly troubled by her approaching death and takes Henri’s antics in her stride; for Abel, too, grief is hardly on the family menu.
Ensemble work is fine and easy, peppered with several thesps from previous Desplechin pics (Amalric, plus Deneuve, Mastroianni); only the fine Girardot is left stranded with a character who’s almost an afterthought. Along with Amalric, Devos also brings a lightness and insouciance to the movie, but for no good dramatic reason is written out of the movie well before the end.
Almost wall-to-wall music score, which is decorative rather than supportive, veers wildly from classical extracts (Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) through baroque to jazz and American song classics. Eric Gautier’s widescreen lensing provides a full frame of activity at all times without becoming visually tiring.