Thursday, April 02, 2009
The Abel Vuillards
By Edward Copeland
Sometimes films can remind you of other films when they really couldn't be less alike. Still, as I watched Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale again and again I was reminded of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.
Jean-Paul Roussillon and Catherine Deneuve star as Abel and Junon Vuillard, the head of an extended family forever haunted by the death of the first born as a child to a form of leukemia. Early on, the film is a bit confusing as it tries to establish the major characters and events through a series of chapters that form one of the many similarities to Tenenbaums.
All the Vuillard children seem to have some sort of creative outlet: Elizabeth, the only girl (Anne Consigny), writes plays; Henri, the black sheep (Mathieu Almaric), tries theater among other things; and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) paints with his cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). For some reason, Elizabeth, a dour, unhappy woman, used an occasion to pay off some of Henri's criminal debts by making a deal with him to be banned from all family occasions. He can still see the others separately, but not together. It's unclear what caused Elizabeth's hatred toward Henri, but she seems generally unhappy with her work-obsessed lawyer husband (Hippolyte Girardot) and her troubled teenage son Paul (Emile Berling) who ends up in a mental institution though later gets out and stumbles upon his uncle Henri and tries to reunite the entire family for Christmas, especially when Junon turns out to be deathly ill with the same ailment that killed their first born and the relatives need to be tested for a dangerous bone marrow match that might not even work and poses risk for the donor.
Where A Christmas Tale diverges from any similarity to Anderson's film is tone. There's nothing whimsical about what's going on here, though there are laughs. It's slow at times, but it does have a great ensemble.
Roussillon is good with nearly a constant smile who just wants everyone to be happy and well. Deneuve is great as a mother who can seem warm, but really has a chilly interior and exterior. Emmanuelle Devos is a delight as Faunia, Henri's perpetually bemused girlfriend. Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Deneuve, has some great scenes as Ivan's wife after she learns a secret.
The film's standout though is Almaric, who makes Henri a completely unpredictable force. You feel sorry for him one minute, understand the hate for him the next. Almaric is brilliant. I wish I could say the same for the film.