Nominated for 9 Cesar awards (although winner of only one), A Christmas Tale is destined to disappoint as many viewers as it enchants.
When ageing Junon (Catherine Deneuve) discovers she has a haematologic malignancy and will most certainly die without a bone marrow transplant, echoes of the death of her first child from leukaemia mean the upcoming Christmas season will be difficult for her whole family. Some have never moved on while others were conceived purely in the hope of curing the firstborn. When the family gets together to celebrate the season under the shadow of the requirement that one of them will provide a transplant for their matriarch, long-held resentments and passions will resurface.
With a roster of major characters that would make even the most attentive viewer begin to lose track, A Christmas Tale spends most of its time on Junon and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), with mixed results. Deneuve is inaccessible and often seems to be turning in her performance while on auto-pilot. Amalric, on the other hand, creates the most interesting of the main characters, and allows a little charm and wit into his performance of the black sheep.
Deneuve and Amalric are supported by a strong cast, most notably Jean-Paul Roussillon who is excellent as Junon’s lifelong love Abel. (That Abel is probably the most sane of the whole clan works in his favour, with the audience immediately sympathetic to his world view.) Chiara Mastroianni also steals scenes as their daughter-in-law Sylvia.
Part of the problem, however, is that this large cast of characters needs close monitoring from an audience to maintain an understanding of the subtleties of their respective lives, and yet many are so unappealing as to be repugnant. It isn’t that the script places good people in unfortunate circumstances and then plays them against each other – A Christmas Tale introduces a miserable bunch of people and then expects a degree of sympathy for them.
The film is punctuated by intertitles and fancy cinematographic technqiues like iris shots, while on several occasions characters turn to the audience and address them directly. The combination of these various artifices means that the audience is separated from the characters in a way that enhances the problem of them being so hard to like rather than ameliorating it.
It is always disappointing when a long-awaited film lets you down, and such is the case with A Christmas Tale. Headlining the Alliance Française French Film Festival, it will also achieve a limited release soon after.Rating: