A Christmas Tale is exactly the sort of film to try the patience of any French cinéphile, and for those already prejudiced against Europe’s biggest film-making nation this would only confirm their suspicions that all the French can do with their films is explore the anxieties and foibles of the bourgeoisie at great length and with complete disregard for the world inhabited by the rest of us.
For two and a half hours Arnaud Depleschin examines the lives of a family haunted by a rare and degenerative blood condition that has seemingly doomed their matriarch, Catherine Deneuve.
Severe rifts that have torn the family apart for years have to be mended to get La Famille Marreau-Donneur together to swap DNA and see if death can be cheated and their Christmas pass without murder, adultery or getting food poisoning from the oysters.
A Christmas Tale appealed to half a million film goers in France, and on the back of its star studded cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric (so effective in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but completely toothless in Quantum of Solace), Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos the film has been released overseas. But in the end, despite literary references from Joyce to Kafka (via Zola), and a furiously unconventional structure it is largely a shallow series of increasingly frantic vignettes with the odd pause for one of the characters to talk directly to camera to bring us up to date with who has done what to whom and how the family bloodline and blood tests are faring. Imagine Amelie with Asperger’s Syndrome.
It is a film that ticks the boxes: suicidal teenager, check; femme fatale, check; drunk uncle, check; frigid daughter, check; artistic type, check etc. With his film Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) in 1996 Despleschin proved himself to be an adept manipulator of complicated themes and multi-character stories, but in that film he had something to say. A Christmas Tale sadly takes its place in the long tradition of vacuous films about French families with fur coats and will be quickly forgotten and moth eaten at the back of the seventh grade’s arts wardrobe.