Time flies. It's been four decades since Luis Buñuel tied Catherine Deneuve to a tree, ripped her blouse and threatened her with a flogging in Belle de Jour. The actress is now 65 years old, still beautiful, a little less icy, and if we are to judge from A Christmas Tale, more interested in fine dining than in exotic sexuality.
In this she seems to encapsulate the recent history of French cinema. Whether it's an intense drama like I've Loved You So Long or a clever thriller like Roman de Gare, there comes a moment when most of the cast settles down to a lovingly appreciated (and photographed) feast steam rising from the main dishes, tempting odors almost palpable in the theater. Ooh la la has been transformed into a long, envious ooh as we watch the cast dig in. In these films, even quick bites in a café or bistro can sometimes make the moviegoer's mouth water.
So it is in A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin's richly populated film about a fractious family gathering for the holidays in a provincial city. Deneuve is the curiously calm matriarch and least neurotic member of this brood. She needs a bone-marrow transplant if she is to survive the sudden onset of leukemia, which is something of a family curse. The best donor possibility is, naturally, one of her kin. The trouble is that they are apparently more interested in their own petty feuds than they are in rescuing her. That's especially true of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a glum playwright who, several years before, got involved in a lawsuit with her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, star of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the lead villain in the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace). She has effectively banished him from the family circle, which makes him the wild card and plot fulcrum when he turns up for the holidays.
The film is full of slightly weird children, plus a certain amount of sexual tension you may be an in-law, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're sexually uninteresting to someone else in the crowded family manse but none of this turns A Christmas Tale into a farce. Desplechin is aware of the humorous cross-currents in the film, but he's not out to exploit them. He's a more serious filmmaker than that, interested in exploring the wayward, occasionally inexplicable tensions of a group bound together more by the accidents of birth than by any true communality of interests. Families are supposed to love one another that's the social convention. But lots of times they don't. They just make do, with tension and guilt.
But remember the title: A Christmas Tale. During the holidays, we are supposed to make our best reconciliatory efforts with our relatives and render our deepest distrusts and dislikes mute for a couple of days. Accordingly, this film is a triumph of willed optimism (or perhaps more accurately, of grudging good nature) over unhappy experiences, though it does not make any large promises about the future of this family. It suffices that somehow all of its characters survive their forced intimacy intact, if not necessarily wiser for the experience. It seemed to me as I left the theater that A Christmas Tale was a little too jumpy for its own good, with too many characters and plot points hastily interwoven. But I've come to think that it is faithful to its essential purpose, which is to disprove the Tolstoyan dictum that unhappy families are each miserable in their own way. We do see something instructive about ourselves in this melodramatically grumbling group. We also appreciate anew that there is nothing like a nice French meal to steady our nerves and serve as the precondition for achieving at least a provisional resolution of our troubles.