Woody Allen once said he treasured the films of Ingmar Bergman for the Swedish director’s ability to put two people in a room talking and more or less make a whole movie out of it. But Bergman’s last feature, the 1982 “Fanny and Alexander,” was a movie of many rooms, and many people — a Christmas tale set early in the last century, in which a large, eccentric theatrical family gathered for the holidays. Sounds simple, but Bergman made a robust and exquisitely detailed film from this gentle material, and the first half of the picture, at least, had a wonderful Yuletide glow.
“A Christmas Tale,” the new film by French director Arnaud Desplechin, has a related seasonal radiance, although it’s more bluntly funny than the Bergman classic, and of course much more modern in its setting and its emotional tones. The family here is headed by a sardonic matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), and her irrepressibly amiable husband, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and it stretches to include their three grown children, Elizabeth, Henri and Ivan, and various friends, lovers, in-laws and grandchildren. A fourth child, Joseph, died years earlier; he’s long-gone, but troublingly unforgotten.
The family’s annual holiday reunions are complicated by the rascally Henri (played with goggle-eyed delight by Mathieu Almaric, of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Some years back, Henri got into one of his frequent financial binds and had to be bailed out by his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, also of “Diving Bell”). Elizabeth had always disapproved of Henri, and she made it a condition of her assistance that he never again appear in her presence — even at family gatherings. This year is different, though. Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia, and will die unless she gets a bone-marrow transplant. Henri could be a compatible donor. So Elizabeth gives a grumbling okay for his return this Christmas, and the eager Henri comes scurrying back into the fold bearing wine and high spirits and a trove of pent-up indignity. Much sloshed gabbling and even a kitchen fistfight ensue. Does this sound just a little like your family? Thought so.
There’s really too much else going on to get into: a woebegone teenager, a Jewish girlfriend who really doesn’t get all this Christmas stuff, and a daughter-in-law, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter), who learns that her husband wasn’t the only family member who’d always loved her, and makes up for lost time by hopping into bed with the newly declared admirer. (You know you’re in Euro-filmland when Sylvia’s kids discover her sacked out with somebody who’s not their dad and neither they nor anyone else think it’s a big deal.) Junon, for her part, floats above all this familial clamor, touching down only occasionally to offer a few provocative bons mots. (At one point, joined by Henri amid the sparkling Christmas lights, she casually informs him that she never much cared for him, either.)
It’s often said — usually with snooty disdain — that certain types of movies can be made in Europe that would never be made here. In the case of “A Christmas Tale,” this is sadly true. The picture is so alive with familial love and intrigue, with the richness of human complexity, that you want to reach out and hug it. It’s one of the year’s most entrancing films, a gift that’s arrived at just the right season.
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