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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A Christmas Tale takes dysfunctional families to the extreme

Illustration for article titled iA Christmas Tale/i takes dysfunctional families to the extreme

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Thanksgiving upon us, we’ve opted to single out a couple of favorite movies about family get-togethers.

A Christmas Tale (2008)

Blood is the source of both familial unity and familial breakdown—of life and death, as it were—in A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin’s majestic 2008 tale of a tumultuous family reunion. Coming together for Yuletide celebrations and to be with matriarch Juno (Catherine Deneuve), who’s been diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer, the Vuillards find themselves at odds in numerous ways. Having been banished six years earlier by older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), drunken, mentally unstable middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) returns to promptly stir the figurative pot. It’s already at a boil, actually, thanks to heated tensions involving youngest son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), whose wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) has complicated feelings for his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). Causing further anxiety is Elizabeth’s suicidal son Paul (Emile Berling), who, to his mother’s chagrin, seems to be following in hated uncle Henri’s deranged footsteps.


Desplechin stages these entanglements—all of which take place under the 30-year-old shadow of a family death—with an empathetic touch, employing a dizzying array of title cards, iris shots, split screens, and to-the-camera first-person monologues from characters. The result is a heartrending tapestry, featuring a strong ensemble of fully formed adults working through the resentment, bitterness, and regret that has made their holiday season less than jolly. Not that A Christmas Tale is oppressively morose. On the contrary, it finds hope in a lover’s smile, joy in young kids’ Christmas morning jubilation, and détente in a sick mother’s knowing look at her incorrigibly mad offspring. Concerned with both decay and rebirth, it’s a film that recognizes the many multifaceted ways in which people are inextricably bound to, and products of, their loved ones.

Availability: A Christmas Tale is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery, and to purchase digitally through Amazon and iTunes.

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