The terrific new French import "A Christmas Tale" begins with a shadow-puppet play, of all things. It's an odd, "once upon a time" opening for a naturalistic story of a sprawling clan's bruising holiday reunion. But as you begin to make sense of the family's history and power struggles, the puppet show becomes a terrific metaphor for the ever-so-sneaky manipulative strategies of sisters against brothers, parents against kids, and each against all. In this dark comedy everyone is at the end of someone else's strings.
Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the cool, elegant matriarch of the Vuillard family, whose bone cancer diagnosis brings together three generations at Christmas. She has fair odds of living a few extra years if a compatible marrow donor can be found. The best candidates are her grandson, a withdrawn boy who hallucinates wolves padding through his home, and her son Henri ("Quantum of Solace" villain Mathieu Amalric), who is both the family's black sheep and scapegoat.
A few years earlier his hostile sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, who played the translator in last year's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," also starring Amalric) bailed him out of a financial mess. For reasons left to our imaginations, she stipulated that Henri never, ever have contact with her again. Junon's condition trumps Elizabeth's decree of banishment, and the games begin. With clinical detachment, Junon declares, "Henri comes from my womb. I'm taking back what's mine." Joyeux Noel to you, too, maman.
Director Arnaud Desplechin drops us into the thicket of entangled personalities, with just enough information to orienteer on our own. He never overexplains, which is so much better than spoon-feeding us. Instead he writes characters and situations that keep us on our toes, continually revising our impressions, and never reducing anyone to simple good guy/bad guy stereotypes. This is a film where goodish people do helpful things for selfish reasons, where a concerned mother sells out her sibling to protect her child, and a reprobate makes a painful sacrifice as a way of getting even with the person he's rescuing.
The film is dense with incident, hustling us through brisk, gently mocking scenes, and every viewer will come away with a different sense of what is meaningful. Is it the passage where one of the Vuillard daughters slips into the bed of an old flame sleeping down the hall? Or the moment when her husband observes them cuddled together and shrugs? (These Europeans!)
For me, two small scenes stand out. In one, Junon's mathematician son-in-law fills a chalkboard with algorithms designed to predict her chances of survival under various scenarios, while the family questions his calculations and offers alternative scenarios. It's a sublime image of our desire to turn capricious fate into a predictable formula, our vain, touching wish to know what happens next in a story that hasn't been written yet.
The other scene is a gathering of the family to watch the youngest children stage a living room play about princes and betrayal and justice restored. Their story is cockeyed, but the themes of family rivalry and banishment and forgiveness are exactly what's eating their elders. Kids pick up on these things.
You realize by now that "A Christmas Tale" isn't a Hallmark production dispensing seasonal uplift and cheer. Every exchange between the prickly Vuillards generates enough friction to ignite a Yule log. Yet there are plenty of sardonic laughs and the overall effect is paradoxically uplifting, like one of those plane-crash dramas where simply surviving amid the wreckage is a testament to human resiliency. And this is a welcome thing. We are overstocked with pat, feel-good family stories. This is a feel-weird story along the lines of "The Royal Tenenbaums," one that admits that, for many of us, an emotionally accurate family portrait would look more like Picasso's "Guernica" than Norman Rockwell. There's a key exchange toward the end in which two characters nonchalantly say they never loved each other, yet the tie between them is so inextricably fierce that a transitory state like love is beside the point.
If I were to try to reduce this complex, superbly acted, endlessly surprising film to a theme, it would be, "Families that don't kill us make us stronger." You will probably interpret it differently. That is what makes it worthwhile, important and so hard to forget.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186