Film review: A Christmas Tale

(cert 15)

Arnaud Desplechin has to be one of the most intriguing directors working in France. His Kings and Queen in 2004 was wonderful, and now this film-maker has directed a glutinously rich, weirdly stylised and tonally perplexing family drama boasting a wealth of classy French stars, with Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric at their forefront.

The title appears to signal a debt to late Shakespeare, but it is in fact an earlier play that is explicitly quoted: A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a movie that took me two viewings to understand, and even now I am not sure I have its measure. Deneuve plays Junon, a beautiful and stylish woman married to Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), a wealthy and much older man. Before the action begins, we hear how their lives have been coloured by illness and an impossibly painful tragedy that has sowed the seeds of complex dysfunction in their grown-up children, particularly Henri (Amalric). This must be healed, somehow, with a Christmas family reunion.

The extraordinary and baffling thing about this film is that again and again, the characters can discuss the most agonising things about their lives with a smile - an arch smile, or a droll smile, or a smile of seraphic acceptance. Junon and Henri's avowed mutual detestation seems to manifest itself in barbed raillery, not obviously different from the terms in which she converses with the rest of her children. Henri's lover Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) listens to Junon describing her family tragedy with the same oddly inappropriate smile. The effect is strange, disconcerting - but never dull. I think what Desplechin has created is not a conventional drama, but a sort of dream-ensemble masque: a choreographed parade of ideas, emotions, personae. A film to ponder, and to savour.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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