“Merry Christmas, baby,” croons Otis Redding from the scratched LP in the living room, but there doesn’t seem, at first, like there’s much to be merry about at the Vuillards' Christmas gathering – certainly not mom’s cancer or cousin’s heartsickness or grandson’s cracked-up dalliance with knives, to name but a few in a stocking stuffed with maladies. The family dynamics are limned in the film’s opening scenes: Decades ago, Junon (Deneuve) and Abel (Roussillon) lost their first child to a rare leukemia that is now destroying Junon. The surviving children, now adult (if by age alone), are called upon to test as possible bone marrow matches for Junon. There’s the eldest, playwright Elizabeth (Consigny), sunk by an impenetrable sadness; black sheep Henri (Amalric), banished from the family years ago; the sunny youngest son, Ivan (Poupaud), rehabilitated from a gloomy adolescence by his wife, Sylvia (Mastroianni); and cousin Simon (Capelluto), a morose painter who hangs at the edge of the family and the frame, until his own private sorrows take center stage fully two-thirds into the film. And that is one of the many minor miracles of this piece – to have room to accommodate so many characters, and so completely. By sheer force of personality, Henri – his anger and his alcoholism – dominates the film. He’s tempered by his surprise guest at the house, a Jewish girlfriend named Faunia (Devos), who wears a perpetually bemused look at the many idiocies of the brawling Vuillards. She’s a beautiful foil for Henri, daffy-seeming yet sensible, sometimes softening the blow of his hairpin turns. Desplechin is fond of twinning, but never with the same pair for long; A Christmas Tale
– acid-dipped but sentimental in the very best sense of the word – is like some marvelous do-si-do in which the family is always spinning partners for another go-round of accusation and confession, cruel brush-off and soft glimpse of grace. There’s a giddiness to this whirling dervish of a film, with its spastic skipping from character and catharsis, its near fetishistic camera trickery, bursts of song, and loving lifts from the likes of Vertigo
and Nietzsche. Desplechin has cited among his influences the films of Ingmar Bergman and Wes Anderson; he’s certainly amassed just as staggeringly good a troupe of performers as any those two directors ever corralled, and he also shares the same tendency to tap the same themes and motifs from previous films. There’s a danger of diminishing returns in this looping back, but if there’s a tipping point (and there is – just ask Anderson or Woody Allen, whose masterstrokes in neuroses surely inspired Desplechin), then he hasn’t gotten there yet. He’s powerfully fixed on the fallout from familial and romantic disconnect, and this is his most beautifully rendered realization of that yet. It’s a perfectly pitched telling of what happens when families get together – how we are free to be our best and worst while in the company of those who have loved and loathed us most intimately. The Vuillards, however fractured, know one another’s rhythms and rituals, and Desplechin knows just how to convey them in the subtlest of ways – how a shot of Sylvia’s bared feet tiptoeing around her sleeping children can speak volumes about the cadences of family life. It’s but a snatch – which is often all Desplechin has time to give us – but in these snatches exists a whole world of longing and resignation, self-seeking and aggravating unawareness. Late in the film, he gathers many of the characters at a dance in the community rec center – the same place Sylvia first met the Vuillard boys, all blustering to bed her. Ivan mans the turntable for a revisionist play of “Love and Happiness.” Everyone is drunk and content, at least in the moment. Ivan scratches and spins, teasing the chorus, and just when it finally kicks in to “happiness is when …,” Desplechin cuts away – and in that cut lies the very rub of adulthood. There’s never any doubt that the wildly, sublimely dysfunctional Vuillard famille
will continue to make a go at rounding somewhere near the neighborhood of happiness. And with a lot of luck, they just might know it when they get there.