It seems absurd to review a DVD of a Christmas movie amid this week’s revelatory spring weather. But it seemed somehow appropriate when it was checked out in the dim gray of last week’s snowstorm. Besides, this French film (released as Un Conte de Noël last year) has only recently arrived in American video stores after sitting atop a host of Year’s Best lists in December.
Also, this isn’t really a Christmas movie. It’s a homecoming movie based around Christmas. The film — directed by Arnaud Desplechin — focuses on the Vuillard family, which was irrevocably splintered after favored son Joseph died of leukemia at age 6. Decades later, matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve), stricken with the same malady, gathers her family around her for Christmas. Here’s chronically unhappy Elizabeth and asshole brother Henri (Anne Consigny and Mathieu Amalric, both from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), whom Elizabeth had heretofore banished from her life. Elizabeth’s depressed son Paul, who with Henri is the only genetic match for a bone marrow transplant. Spouses Ivan and Sylvia — the former a mental patient, the latter forever dogged by the lovesick eyes of Simon, the Vuillards’ lovesick cousin.
It’s like The Family Stone meets The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, its premise is like many movies you’ve probably seen. But its style — its feeling and execution and trickery — c’est français. The dialogue is impossibly remote and academic. Desplechin’s directorial approach is bafflingly eclectic (even — dare we say? — pretentious), throwing every possible cinematic tool at the celluloid: flashback, silhouette puppetry, jarring cuts, keyhole camera framing, title cards for each chapter, monologues directed at the camera.
Don’t expect any of this to make sense within the narrative. It doesn’t. At least not in any kind of Keyser Söze sense. But the grab-bag approach does, in a strange way, illustrate the fractured, multi-faceted interior lives of family members locked in cold war with themselves and each other. Thus, Desplechin crams an entire novel’s worth of characterization into a (relatively) streamlined 150-minute film that’s worth a watch at Christmas or any other time.