reviewed by Marc Glassman
Un conte de Noel. Arnaud Desplechin, director & co-script w/Emmanuel Bourdieu. Starring: Catherine Deneuve (Junon Vuillard), Mathieu Amalric (Henri Vuillard), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel Vuillard), Anne Cosigny (Elizabeth Vuillard), Melvil Poupaud (Ivan Vuillard)
Are any families functional? Apparently not. Un conte de Noel offers a classically constructed melodrama by French auteur Arnaud Desplechin. When Junon Vuillard, the family matriarch (Catherine Deneuve), falls ill with a potentially fatal blood marrow disease, it turns out that only Henri, her outcast older son, can save her. Invited back home for Christmas, Henri’s presence is a tough present for the family to accept.
Elizabeth, the accomplished playwright and older sister, was the one who exiled the alcoholic Henri from the family’s inner circle and the tension between the two is palpable throughout the proceedings. So is the odd mixture of shame and pity felt by Henri’s pleasantly ineffectual young brother Ivan and father Abel. Neither man is willing to stand up to Elizabeth or Junon—and they may not be wrong in their diffidence.
Christmases are always cumbersome affairs. In most families, there’s too much drinking and eating. Secrets are revealed to younger members of the family who might have benefited from remaining ignorant of past sins and indiscretions.
In the case of the Vuillards, though there are some fascinating back-stories, the main tale isn’t hidden at all. Junon and Abel had an older son, Joseph, who died of the same blood disorder that is now threatening the elderly woman’s life. Everything that’s happened since occurred with that tragedy in mind. Certainly Abel has retreated from worldly affairs since Joseph’s death — and perhaps Junon has become less emotional and more controlling.
Staged mainly in a large, rambling familial home, with people working at cross-purposes from each other, Un conte de Noel is a brilliantly wrought tale. Featuring exceptional performances from Almaric, Deneuve and Cosigny, this film is Desplechin’s masterpiece—one that any sophisticated and intelligent cineaste should relish and recommend.