Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: A Christmas Tale (2008)

Just in time for Christmas, a film about a dysfunctional family. That's what Christmas movies are, aren't they?

This is another one of those families though, where the two elderly parents adore each other still after all these years, live in a fantastic house, live a life of immense culture and happiness. They have children who are all vastly different in their qualities, and they, in turn, have beautiful children. They all come together for Christmas because the mother is dying.

In this case, the mother, Junon, is legendary french actress Catherine Deneuve. She needs a bone marrow transplant, and the only one who can save her is her estranged son Henri (Mathieu Almaric). Henri has been banished by his eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), for reasons we don't know and never find out. Apparently nobody else in the family knows either why Henri was forced to keep his distance for 5 years. At first, he seems perfectly likable, and I don't see why his family is supposed to have hated him. Junon professes to not care for him, a sentiment which he happily returns. He transpires to be rude and abrasive, but overall it seems very forced. It's like there was a scramble for him to look unfavorable, so they wrote him some crude dialogue. However, there were one or two scenes where I could see his unruliness, and that's when he was talking to Elizabeth's son, Paul. Paul is mentally unstable, and incidentally, a match for Junon's marrow type. He sees this as a means to bond with his uncle, but it turns out very quickly that Henri is neither interested, or very good at playing the "fun uncle".

Eventually, he seems to have a change of heart. Whatever happens to him, it's not exactly clear, but he becomes genial with his mother, and seems hell-bent on saving her life by doing an organ transplant. And they don't like each other? Perhaps Deneuve and Almaric have too much chemistry, because I couldn't see their supposed dislike for each other. That, and when Henri brings his new girlfriend to the house, all they can ask her is how she puts up with him. First, how insulting, and second, I bet I could put up with him; he doesn't seem bad at all.

The youngest son, Ivan, is the most "perfect" of the three (Elizabeth is a whiny and morose downer the entire film) with a likable wife, and two young, talented sons. However since he's the most grounded, he invariably will attract some difficulties. His wife struggles with newfound information and events transpire that might seem odd and rather unorthodox to our American standards. It was strange, I'll say that.

The acting was good, but for what they were trying to convey, it wasn't happening.

The filmmaking is smart; it employs several different styles and techniques, plays with filters, and narration styles. The location is the small picturesque town of Roubaix, on the edge of northern France. It's pretty, and makes for pretty filmmaking. It clocks in at around 2:30 but it didn't feel long. I found it quick-paced, aesthetically, pleasing; all around an engaging film. In retrospect, it's just another dysfunctional family film, but its quirks are smarter and slightly bolder in its ambiguity.

A worthwhile Christmas film.

Grade: B+

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