If anything captures the spirit of Christmas, it’s the angry booze fuelled gathering of a bourgeois family whose bitterness and loathing toward each other is palpable and who use charity as just another weapon to express their spite for one another. I would say that it’s unlikely that Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale will replace Bob Clark’s similarly titled A Christmas Story as the go to cheery feel good Christmas movie of the masses, but it is quite an exceptional film, just one that is probably best watched around June. After all, just like pets, loathing and disgust are forever, not just for Christmas. A Christmas Tale is also a film which is impossible to discuss without giving the gift of quite detailed spoilers, so if you think that the passive-aggressive gathering of a French family who are tainted by hatred and betrayal is your kind of thing, you should probably watch the film before reading on.
What better way to set the tone of this movie, than by setting the opening scene at a funeral with the line “My son is dead”? Moving away from the funeral, the family history is then told through shadow puppets. The eldest child of Abel and Junon Vuillard was sick with a rare form of cancer for most of his six years. The implication of the opening voiceover is that Abel and Junon kept having children in the hope of creating a compatible bone marrow donor for their beloved son, to the extent of testing Ivan’s compatibility in utero. You are also given some sense that the inability of the younger children to save the eldest creates contempt in the parents toward their remaining children. With the super cheery back story out of the way we see Junon drop a plate and collapse on the floor, the first symptom of the degenerative cancer that she now has.
The film introduces us to Elizabeth “The Eldest” with a title card, as she introduces herself with the line “I’m sterile. I’m unhappy. Angry. Seething with anger. I even hate you”. We see that most of the Vuillard family are in a courthouse determining whether Henri’s debts will be paid off or if he will be sent to prison, disgracing the family. Abel volunteers to sell everything he has to pay the debts, however, Elizabeth makes an agreement with Henri that she will pay off all of his debts, provided that he is banished from her life (“He must never speak to me. Ever. No more visits. No more surprise gifts… I never want to see him again. Wherever I go Henri won’t be there”).
We are brought back to the present with Junon describing her diagnosis “statistically I’m going to die twice”, explaining that a bone marrow transplant is her only chance, but due to her rare blood type, finding a compatible donor will be difficult and there’s a 35% chance the transplant will kill her. We are then introduced to Elizabeth’s son Paul through a series of flashes of him in an ambulance, waving a knife at his mother, being given medication which makes everything blurry, trying to kill himself and in a hospital bed saying “At night they take my blood”. We are then introduced to Henri “The Middle Child” as he walks down the street and collapses. We discover that all of the family is being tested for donor compatibility, to which Junon states “Thanks to my disease we’re being reunited”. Paul is sent by Elizabeth with a letter to Henri to tell him to join everyone at Christmas.
The next chapter is titled “Friday 22 December: The Letter” and consists of Henri narrating the long letter that we see Elizabeth receiving in the mail. We see everyone arrive at the house for Christmas and it is difficult to concentrate for some time as Abel’s pants are some of the highest high pants you will ever see. It is becoming readily apparent that this is a film designed to make everyone feel better about their own family dysfunctions. What follows is a lot of drinking and people sitting around the table not talking. Henri tells everyone that his bone marrow would be compatible for his mother to which she disturbingly responds “I don’t want that white stuff shot into me. From you to boot”. Sylvia is interrogating Ivan as to why Elizabeth hates Henri so much and guesses “I know, he slept with your sister, right?”, which certainly would be the simplest explanation for the mess that surrounds those two, she then correctly points out that he’s from a “family of weirdos”.
Paul is confirmed as compatible and able to donate and a doctor runs through the various mathematical equations for Junon’s life expectancy on a blackboard as we start “December 23: Reunited”. Henri argues and mocks Elizabeth’s husband before telling him “you don’t count”, Claude in turn beats the crap out of him and leaves stating “I’m not staying here”. Elizabeth then tenderly treats his wounds. Henri goes to the hospital for a follow up about being a donor and is told he has a nodule on his lung and that he drinks and smokes too much, and that while he’s compatible, it might be risky for him. . Henri signs the paperwork to commit to being a donor. While he’s there Junon and Faunia run into each other and go shopping together where Faunia asks why Junon likes her, to which she answers “You took the one I don’t like”, before adding “I often wondered what he’s like in bed”. For no apparent reason, everyone is keen to tell Faunia she has “an ass like Angela Bassett”.
Ivan tells Henri “It’s time you told me what you did to make Elizabeth hate you” as he stumbles over some contrived story about a baby sitter. Ivan tells Henri that Elizabeth claimed their falling out was over a letter that he sent her containing “unforgivable things”. Elizabeth delivers a monologue away from Henri “One day I decided to break with him in order to protect myself and my child. Then Paul went crazy. My husband and I blamed ourselves” before realising that Henri “is the disease”. Concluding that “You’ve stolen my entire life”. Elizabeth is determined that Henri shouldn’t donate and Paul should with the charity of giving life becoming another pawn in the endless fight between these two. Over fireworks in their backyard Junon’s elderly friend tells Sylvia that she should have ended up with Simon, but the boys made an agreement. For no apparent reason everyone ends up at some crappy club with someone who was probably related to the person financing the movie doing some pretty awful scratching. Sylvia demands details from Simon on what happened and he admits that he gave her up for his cousin, but still loves her.
The next chapter “December 24: The Phantom” sees proceedings veer rapidly off the rails with Abel confiding to Ivan “When you were born I wondered if you could have saved Joseph but you were born too late”. When they visit the Joseph’s grave he adds “For 30 years we never knew who gave Joseph leukaemia. Well, it was my wife”. Faunia leaves as we’re told Faunia “doesn’t like any Christians” and that she’s travelling to Paris to be with her family “where they celebrate a non-Christmas”. The children then stage the bizarre play Prince Zorro: A Drama for all assembled in which a brother and sister fight as a result of the brother’s “terrible secret” which is revealed to be that “he slept with a nanny goat”. With Faunia gone Henri and Elizabeth fight bitterly culminating in the exchange of gifts where Henri has his letter returned and is visibly shaken. He then gets phenomenally wasted and proposes an expletive laden toast before collapsing to the ground. This is met with mocking laughter and his mother adding “Good riddance Henri wore me out tonight”. Henri, Paul and Junon, the three with the same blood match, go to midnight mass together. Simon has left and they all go out searching for him, Sylvia finds him in a bar drinking heavily and she joins him. Simon confesses that “The meaning of what I do is bound up in you… I live for you” and they sleep together.
The next chapter is “December 25: Jubilations”. It’s snowing on Christmas Day and the kids are running through the house waking everyone up. When they go into their father’s room they ask “Where’s Mummy” to which Ivan blandly replies “She’s probably in your Uncle’s room”. The kids run in there with breakfast as Sylvia and Simon are in bed together, Ivan walking past emotionlessly observes them getting dressed. Meanwhile Henri and Paul are jogging together, talking about their compatibility for the bone marrow transplant as Henri oddly notes that he and Junon “have the same gene which proves I’m Junon’s son”, saying something to the effect that he always thought that he must have been adopted. The strangeness of this conversation seems to further support the theory that Henri is Paul’s father and that this is the reason for Elizabeth’s anger toward Henri.
The final chapter is “In The Evening: Farewells” and amongst the polite farewells we see Sylvia and Simon in a frenzied and passionate embrace and learn that Paul is staying behind to work for Abel. Later in the evening, out the front of the hospital we see Elizabeth sitting with Henri who, typically unconcerned for his own wellbeing, is smoking and drinking prior to his surgery. Although she chastises him for it, the two appear to have finally found some degree of reconciliation. Desplechin then wonderfully cuts between Simon and Paul working at the family business and Henri undergoing the medical procedures for donating tissue, which can certainly be seen as working at the other “family business”. Following the procedure Henri, despite being in significant pain, rushes to be with Junon who informs him “My body can’t stand you it’s rejecting everything from you”, he conspiratorially tosses a coin and she calls heads. Like the coin toss, the result of the transplant is left ambiguous. In the very final scene we see Elizabeth at her home finally at some kind of peace.
A Christmas Tale is a phenomenal, but brutal movie. The study of a family dynamic that hasn’t stood up well to the ongoing pressure of grief, secrets and lies, it really only uses Christmas as a window into this family in disrepair, much as Festen uses a 60th birthday party to explore a similar dynamic. The effects of loss, loathing, mental illness and sexual politics are never far beneath the surface and no one in the film is seemingly ever at peace. The closest we see to happiness in this film are an adulterous affair between Sylvia and her husband’s cousin and in the single tender moment between Elizabeth and Henri as she tends his wounds after her husband has beaten him. The cast are all phenomenal, particularly Catherine Deneuve as Junon and Mathieu Amalric as Henri and A Christmas Tale is a great film, just a terrible “Christmas” film… So I really have to give it one out of nine reindeer, but that one reindeer would be Rudolph.