Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) (2008) dir. Arnaud Desplechin
Starring: Mathieu Almaric, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni
“Un Conte de Noel” bowed first at Cannes and now receives it’s North American festival debut at TIFF. Arnaud Desplechin weaves a sometimes serious, sometimes absurd look at a dysfunctional family reuniting at Christmas. It’s wildly inconsistent tones, inexplicable behaviour from its characters, over stylization from the director and a two and a half hour running time made this a frustrating experience and an exercise in cinematic self-stroking.
Over Christmas Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Abel have assembled a family reunion. It’s significant because it brings back into the family Henry (Mathieu Almaric) who was ostracized by her sister Elizabeth after a betrayal of fraud 4 years ago. It’s an awkward meeting, but the family is so big Elizabeth and Henri manage to avoid each other. Unfortunately Junon has cancer and requires a bone marrow transplant to cure her.
The central question is who will be the bone marrow donor –Henri or Paul. This provides the internal conflict for Elizabeth. Which is the lesser of two evils? Subject her son to the pain and danger of the extraction procedure, or give her beloved mother the ‘bad blood’ from the despised Henri. This provides a compelling moral throughline, but unfortunately Desplechin distracts us with excessive subplots and incomprehensible characterizations.
The film is a mish-mash of “The Royal Tenenbaums”, “Rules of the Game” and the bourgeois surrealism of Luis Buñuel. Arnaud is supremely confident his hodgepodge of cinematic stylizing will weave an idiocyncratic tapestry and entrance the audience through its 150 minutes. It’s just plain confusing, distracting, pretentious and agonizing.
Let’s start with the music. I made a mental count of the different types of music used in various scenes. Desplechin repeatedly uses a film noir cello-heavy brooding sound seemingly to raise some tension or intrigue, to which nothing is ever paid off. We are hear on occasion as the score, Celtic music, hip-hop, jazz, Indian tabla.
Desplechin throws just about every visual stylistic device at us bombarding us to a pulp with eclecticisms. Characters often talk directly to camera, there’s an animated opening sequence, freeze frames in the middle of a scene, etc etc.
There’s never short of conflict in "Un Conte de Noel" – which couldn’t be said about Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours”. Everyone seems to be at odds with each other. Ironically, some moments which should provide conflict don’t. For example, towards the end of the film Sylvia (Chiari Mastroianni), who is married to Ivan, offers herself to his cousin Simon, who I thought was gay?. Huh? They sleep together and the next morning they are discovered in bed together by their kids and Ivan himself. No one seems to care. I stopped caring about this movie long before that.