When I reviewed Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) almost one year ago, I ended my post with this observation:
A memorable image comes midway in Un conte de Noël when [a central character] opens a present from a neighbor, a gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm. As she admires it, there is a cut to the charm spinning in the center of the film frame as the surrounding space dissolves into a snowy exterior of the family home. This central image somehow captures the ineffable feelings that arise when viewing this exquisite film, of a family that may not actually like each other much, but manage to hold deep love for each other nonetheless.
This ethereal image of the twirling bauble still lingers. It is the essential image of the film, distilling the warmth and fragility of the almost archetypal family story of the Vuillards.
But director Arnaud Desplechin elevates the familiar genre of the Christmas family reunion beyond its cliche saccharine elements, complicating the tale by introducing long-held resentments, rivalries, and recriminations between the siblings and their parents. The two characters who are often at the crux of most of these complications are the cancer-stricken Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and her least favorite son, Henri (Mathieu Amalric). So it is with no small tragicomic irony that it is only Henri's bone marrow that is deemed compatible with Junon's need. And it is a credit to Desplechin's profundity in fashioning this small fable that these two characters who dislike each other so immensely still love each other greatly, and in fact, identify with each other to the exclusion of the rest of their family. Thus does the gyrating trinket in the image come to literally depict the otherwise unknowable heart of gold buried deep within the spiteful characters.
It is because of Desplechin's ease at pictorially depicting such lush, passionate emotions in counterpoint to the quiet expressions of love and regret at the center of the family's interactions that this film made my top ten list for last year's films (and is seriously vying for top ten of the decade).
Criterion has wisely timed this week's release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray to the holiday season, when the movie's magic can most effectively touch the viewer. And what an astounding trio of supplements it includes: an essay by esteemed critic Phillip Lopate; a 35-minute documentary featuring interviews with Amalric, Deneuve, and Desplechin—all eloquently expressing their fascination with each other and the film (in English, surprisingly); and L'aimée, Desplechin's 2007 documentary about his paternal grandmother, her death when his father was only two, and how it impacted the development of his family. It is this last one hour doc that proves to be most insightful, illustrating how Desplechin's interactions with his own family in Roubaix, France may have served as the inspiration for A Christmas Tale—also set in Roubaix—released one year later.