A Christmas Tale



Cannes, In Competition

CANNES -- Arnaud Desplechin’s fourth tilt at the Palme d’or, “A Christmas Tale,” is a family drama set in his native Roubaix in northern France. With a strong cast including many Desplechin regulars, the movie is sure to receive an enthusiastic welcome from French critics, with audiences likely to follow. (The film opens May 21 in France and screens In Competition at the Festival de Cannes.)

Despite the name recognition of such actors as Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric, foreign audiences might be deterred by the movie’s 143-minute length and the profusion of characters and interwoven story lines.

A death lies at the heart of this movie, that of a 6-year-old. Flash forward 40 years. Joseph’s death from leukemia has taken a heavy psychological toll on his siblings. Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a successful playwright, is receiving treatment for chronic depression. Henri (Amalric) is the hard-drinking, womanizing black sheep of the family who has been banished by his sister as the payoff for settling his debts. Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) has rushed into starting up his own family as an escape from the one he was born into.

About an hour of the movie is spent setting up the backstory, the relations among family members — which include parents Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Deneuve) and various spouses and girlfriends — as well as the complications that arise when Junon is found to be suffering from the same leukemia that killed Joseph.

Junon requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to survive. She chooses to receive the graft from Henri, the least favored of her children. By this time, it is the season of good will and all the parties are invited to the family home.

Desplechin is a past master at this sort of Chekhovian orchestration of multiple story lines. The danger, though, is of information (and sensory) overload as characters unburden themselves, sometimes at great length, in dialogue that often sparkles, though opinions might differ as to whether it is witty or merely febrile. Detached irony is the favored register of a literate, occasionally literary, script co-written by Desplechin with Emmanuel Bourdieu.

What’s troubling is its lack of perspective on anything beyond the narrow, navel-gazing concerns of its characters, so even as Junon prepares to undergo her operation, the spectator is hard-pressed to care.

Production companies: Why Not Prods., France 2 Cinema, Wild Bunch, Bac Films. Sales: Wild Bunch. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Hyppolite Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto. Director: Arnaud Desplechin. Screenwriters: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu. Producer: Benoit Pilot. Executive Producer: Martine Cassinelli.
No MPAA rating, 143 minutes.