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A Christmas Tale

Un Conte de Noël

By Joffre Agnes

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

A “Christmas Tale” is Arnaud Desplechin’s latest masterpiece.

This movie includes all the secrets of his success. It is a dark, brilliantly observed and acidly funny story about a family haunted by its own dead people as “La Vie des Morts”. The cast is absolutely superb and includes most of his regular actors such as Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Jean Paul Roussillon.

Above all this film illustrates Arnaud Desplechin’s genius to say horrible things without being dramatic or making any fuss about it, his capacity to find some joy in the saddest situations. Dialogues are breathtakingly frank, literature meets cinema and Arnaud Desplechin manages  to stay always light and subtle at the same time.

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

“A Christmas Tale” depicts the reunion of a ruined family with a troubled past and a painful present just few days before Christmas. No comparison with a joyful and childlike fairy tale: Arnaud Desplechin deals with the thematic of absence and phantoms around the family as what he did in “La Vie des Morts”.

Abel and Junon are married and live in Roubaix. They have two children, Joseph and Elizabeth. Unfortunately Joseph is suffering from Burkitt’s lymphoma and needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. But neither his parents nor her sister are compatible. So Junon and Abel decides to have another child to save Joseph: Henri. However he turns out to be incompatible and so, useless. Joseph dies, 6 aged. Another child is eventually conceived, Ivan and the family seems to heal from the wound of Joseph’s death… but not really.


A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

Here is the starting point: the family is haunted by the dead child. Its blood which is responsible seems to be cursed. There are all the elements of the Greek tragedies: Arnaud Despleschin revives this framework and shatters all of its rules and habits as a virtuoso. What would this family become?

Elizabeth, the elder child turns out to be a famous playwright but always morose without any real reasons. She is neurotic and so is her child who suffers some psychological problems. When her brother Henri is charged with a fraudulent bankruptcy she helps him but under the condition that she never sees him again. Henri, the black sheep of the family, the unfit son who was born useless and so who never got any love even from his mother is now banished for some mysterious reasons, as in Greek tragedies.

At least, Ivan, the adolescent on the edge of the abyss, is almost a sane father of two boys. The family is disconnected: Ivan and his wife Sylvia keep in touch with Henry and so do Junon’s nephew, Simon. However Henri is alone, excluded, banished. He keeps on wangling. The situation seems to be frozen.


Dramatic turn of events, five days later the all family has to be reunited for Christmas since the matriarch Junon got the same disease as Joseph and needs a transplant too.

This is the occasion for a splendid gallery of portrayals. All the characters are deep and complex. Arnaud Desplechin filmed their faces exactly as if he were a writer depicting all the facets of his characters. And they all have so many facets: from inexplicable loves to unexplained hates all of these characters try to hide their distress behind insolent behaviours but always with honesty, lightness and almost  self-derision.

These tale characters are so seducing because they can’t be anything else than mysteries. They are tragic, absurd and funny at the same time and just keep on falling, like Junon fall at the beginning or like Henri in the street. They are go-getters driving straight into the wall but always with spontaneity, audacity and sincerity. Maybe they are simply just as mixed-up as everyone tries to hide it...

The actors are all outstanding and everyone finds his own place. Mathieu Amalric, whose character is central, is absolutely perfect. His performance as the black sheep brother is astonishing. Feminine characters are graceful: Chiara Mastroianni excels in her love trio and Emmanuelle Devos gives a touch of lightness to the story. Her character, Faunia is quite external to the family and so becomes a sort of witness amused by all of its absurdity. Catherine Deneuve is an excellent matriarch and shares some extraordinary scenes with Mathieu Amalric.


A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale


Dialogues are raw and subtle at the same time, sometimes literary extracts are mingled. So Abel reads Nietzsche to his daughter Elizabeth to explain how difficult it is to know itself. Some characters declaims monologues as if they were declaiming some poetry, their own poetry. Arnaud Desplechin deeply shatters genres and creates such a beautifully moving movie.

He touches on many taboo subjects: a mother claims she doesn't love all her children in the same way and even doesn’t love one of her son at all whereas they look so connected. Eventually maybe is Henry her favourite child despite the appearances? We wil never know. Children could hate their parents too. Desplechin shows it can be hate in a family, almost incestuous loves... He deals with illness, death, absence, loneliness, family…

A Christmas Tale
A Christmas Tale

Some many questions are raised. Why does Elizabeth hate Henry so much? Why is Ivan always so positive? Why does Junon despise her daughter in law Sylvia? What is hidden behind Sylvia’s charm and smiles? What is exactly the place of this father who seems never to have any opinion? However that may be, it seems that the key question of the movie is: what is a normal family? How could a family be normal? In fact if this family seems extremely weird, it's true that in big families it may occur that one of the siblings is excluded... Let's go further. In fact every family could be seen as weird from an external point of view,couldn't it?

Whatever, the beauty of this movie is in its questions, not in its answers.   


Interview with Arnaud Desplechin 


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