8. A Christmas Tale (2008)
Dysfunctional families are about as old of a film tradition one is bound to come by. Yet family dynamics are unique and irreplicable. It is a rare element that can never fully become clichÃ© and can always remain fresh. Wes Andersonâ€™s The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite films inspired by this element, but French director, Arnaud Desplechinâ€™s A Christmas Tale is a vast improvement on roughly the same concept.
The concept is pretty simple: one family member that has been pushed away for years comes knocking on the doorstep in an attempt to reconnect. But A Christmas Tale is much more complex. To begin with, the family is huge. Junon and Abel are the mother and father of the grown Vuilliard family. They have several children and unrelated tagalongs to the family; some are boyfriends and girlfriends, some are spouses, and some are just miscellaneous relations. The gather at Christmas on account of Junonâ€™s cancer. She needs a bone marrow transplant from a person who matches. Unfortunately only two people emerge as matching, and they are not the two the family had hoped for. This gathering results in the arrival of Henri, the child that has not been a part of the family for years as a result of some bad blood between he and his sister Elizabeth. While at the family gathering,Â a complicated love triangle emerges and Elizabethâ€™s son struggles with severe depression that possibly verges on paranoid schizophrenia.
The film is a hectic, chaotic, three-hour epic mess. But it is a gloriously epic mess. What holds the film grounded in reality is how well-developed each character is. This is not a film about plot. It is a film about the characters, the place they occupy, and the tension and moods that emerge. If this were an American film (like Royal Tenenbaums), each character would be simplified to one stereotype, one exaggerated chacteristic, and exactly one flaw that they must overcome to exhibit the filmâ€™s explicit moral. But this is not an American film and its characters are not confined by narrative limitations. They are three dimensional, believable, lovable and hateable. It presents moral dilemmas with opposing viewpoints, both sidesÂ of which the audience can feel empathy. That is the power of a great screenplay. The tension that arrises is the result of great acting. The gorgeous visuals that keep interiors and generic French cities overwhelmingly exciting are result of solid art direction and gorgeous cinematography. And the powerful yet comedic tone is the result of able directing. A Christmas Tale is one of my favorite films from the past ten years.
Ultimately, the film ends on an unsure note. For this reason, one could argue that the film lacks a cohesive conclusion. But thatâ€™s what the film is really about. There is no ending because life goes on. The film may be an epic by filmmaking standards, but it is only a snapshot of the lives of these characters whose lives convincingly seem to have stretched on for years prior to the film and years afterward. They are people you believe in and people you hope you might meet one day on a trip to Europe, perhaps in a bar or hostel.
Every time I watch this movie, it is like revisiting old friends. I still donâ€™t quite understand the significance of the child who died at the tender age of seven or why Junon leaves Faunia in the city. But I donâ€™t see these as flaws. Just like real life, much remains a mystery. What is important is to walk away having enjoyed the experience and the people you spent it with.
A Christmas Tale is a great film that knows itâ€™s great. If you look closely at Fauniaâ€™s trip to the city, you will see a direct throwback to the famous museum scene in Vertigo. Even the music is identical. Vertigo is about a character lost within the character she is playing. A Christmas Tale is about overcoming differences and accepting those around you, particularly family. And Christmas is the perfect time to accept your family.