A retrospective of Arnaud Desplechin’s films at the IFC, pegged to the release of A Christmas Tale, is called “Every Minute Four Ideas,” which deftly evokes the 48-year-old writer-director’s taste for abrupt shifts in tone and style, ceaseless psychological circumlocutions, and onscreen invocations of drama, myth, and philosophy. It all sounds very intimidating. What the title doesn’t conjure up is how engaging Desplechin’s films are on the level of, well, bourgeois narrative—how tender, funny, cruel, and upending. We French-art-movie mavens are accustomed to grappling with intellectual jigsaw puzzles. Desplechin offers emotional ones. The rub is that their edges are illusory. Each character has his own way of framing experience—his private myth. The pieces don’t fit, but playing with them opens your mind.
Is A Christmas Tale a masterpiece? Maybe. I have to play with it longer. It’s certainly Desplechin’s most accessible film, in part because its dysfunctional-family-holiday-reunion genre is so comfy and its palette so warm. Familiar, too, is the parent-with-cancer device. The ill matriarch is played by Catherine Deneuve, well preserved but anxiously so. She is Junon, a narcissistic iceberg who hesitates over a bone-marrow transplant because of a potential side effect—essentially being burned alive from the inside. That ivory skin is too precious. The son with compatible marrow is the obnoxious drunk Henri (Desplechin regular—and alter-ego?—Mathieu Amalric in his second juicy performance of the week), the one she frankly loves least and who frankly doesn’t love her back. Their frank admissions of non-love are flabbergasting.
Five years earlier, Henri was banished from the family by his melancholy playwright sister (Anne Consigny) after she paid back money he extorted. They loathe each other. She regards him as a threat to her stability. He sees her as a succubus. They’re both unfair, but it’s fair to say they make each other crazy. We recognize the story’s mythical underpinnings: the long-ago death of the 7-year-old firstborn, and the parents’ inhuman refusal to mourn; the sacramental transplant that threatens to transform its new host into something monstrous—a chimera. The characters mull these symbols over. Henri writes to his sister, “We’re in the midst of a myth and I don’t know what that myth is.” In Desplechin’s My Sex Life, characters fixed on Kierkegaard and noncommittal antihero Peer Gynt. Here they turn to Nietzsche and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The citations are the opposite of pretentious. The characters are groping for higher wisdom. But self-knowledge is terminally elusive.
Desplechin might be the most earnest ironist alive. Amalric is an antic sprite whose eyes are wired open in anguish. His girlfriend is the strange, gorgeous Emmanuelle Devos, who follows this family with a gaze half-aghast, half-enchanted. A Christmas Tale is a bad dream with just enough distance to give us a midwinter’s night’s laugh.