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A Christmas Tale

If you’ve already heard of the Criterion collection, then congratulations. You’re a good film nerd. Have a cookie. If you haven’t, then allow me to try and illuminate the subject.

To make a very long story short, Criterion is a company that started out making educational CD-ROM games until various business dealings turned them into a home entertainment distributor. But unlike others in their field, Criterion doesn’t put out just any film on DVD. No, Criterion is a distribution company exclusively made by cinephiles, of cinephiles, for cinephiles. Its mission is to find and distribute movies of rare and special importance to the filmmaking craft and to culture at large. At present, the collection is comprised of 624 films from all time periods, countries, and genres. These films were made by visionaries both famous and forgotten, including such names as Welles, Curtiz, Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Fuller, Lean, Kubrick, Lang, Sturges, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Ozu, Sirk, Buñuel, Powell, and Pressburger.

Yet Criterion doesn’t just stop at finding and distributing these films. They go to painstaking lengths to present these movies as they were meant to be seen, often consulting with the original filmmakers in the process. These films are uncut, restored to their best possible quality, and presented in their original aspect ratio. What’s more, this company perfected the letterbox format, cast and crew commentaries, bonus features, special editions, and other DVD features that we take for granted today.

Due to the immense care taken in their development, as well as the quality of the DVDs and of the movies themselves, Criterion releases are commonly regarded as the gold standard of DVD and Blu-Ray releases. As such, when a movie is considered prestigious enough to warrant the Criterion treatment, attention must be paid. And to learn that a movie’s Criterion release was also its DVD debut… well, that’s enough to peak the interest of any film-lover.

I confess that I knew absolutely nothing about A Christmas Tale until I saw it on the Christmas display at Movie Madness. It was the only one on the shelf with a Criterion case, which of course drew my eye. I asked a staff member about it, and he didn’t know much of anything about it either, except that it was a relatively new film which went straight to its Criterion release without any DVD distribution before that. After taking it home and doing a little digging, I found that this movie debuted in 2008, when it screened at Cannes and became a candidate for the Palme d’Orr. It went on to be a quiet critical smash, picking up numerous awards, nominations, and accolades while continuing to fly under the radars of MPAA and AMPAS.

So is this film really an obscure gem or did it deserve to be snubbed by the Academy? For my part, I consider the answer to be “Yes.”

A Christmas Tale tells the story of the Vuillard clan, a family that seems to be followed by death and disease at every turn. The prologue tells of Joseph, the family’s first-born child, who died of leukemia at an early age. A few decades later, the family’s matriarch (Junon, played by Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with the same degenerative illness. The only treatment is a bone marrow transplant, which carries a great risk of death for either the donor or the recipient, or possibly both. Additionally, because Junon has such a rare blood type, there are only two compatible donors.

One of them is her grandson, Paul (Emile Berling), a teenager who recently spent some time in a mental institution. The other is Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the black sheep and middle child of the family. There are of course several other family members swirling around, each with their own agendas and emotional baggage, and all of them with differing opinions about what treatment Junon should or shouldn’t seek. The anchor of the family — and of the story, for that matter — is Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), the eldest child. She’s also the mother of Paul and the sister who got Henri ostracized. She insists on never seeing Henri again as part of a court settlement, but Grandma came down with cancer just in time for the holidays, so family reunion!

If it sounds like I’m skipping over a bunch of stuff, it’s only because I am. This movie runs at 150 minutes, which is roughly half an hour longer than it needed to be. What’s more, this film consists almost entirely of wall-to-wall dialogue (French with English subtitles). A movie can work if it’s made entirely of dialogue, but it needs a supremely skilled director and/or writer to make it work. Jason Reitman can do it. Diablo Cody can do it. Kevin Smith was great at it back in the ’90s. Quentin Tarantino can do it. Hell, I bet that the Coen Brothers could make an amazing film in that vein if they wanted to. Writer/director Arnaud Desplechin comes close a few times, but not nearly close enough.

Of course, the screenplay is assisted by an extraordinary cast. All of these actors do an amazing job at bringing this family of characters to life, it’s just that — much like the lines of dialogue — there’s just too many of them. Despite the movie’s Herculean efforts to the contrary, keeping track of all these family members can be a real chore.

Now, to be fair, I should point out that there are a few very interesting visual flourishes here and there, even if they are a little too inconspicuous. My favorite example is the puppet show that acts out the film’s prologue. It’s totally out of place, but it looks charming all the same. I’d also like to address the “telescope effect.” There are a couple of times when the movie will focus on a particular circle-shaped area on the screen and black out everything else, as if we were seeing the scene through a telescope. I have absolutely no idea why this happens. The whole film is filled with such creative little touches that would have looked great in another movie, but don’t make any lick of sense in this context.

I can certainly understand the praise that A Christmas Tale got in the arthouse circuit. Desplechin shows a great deal of creativity and talent, particularly in writing and casting for so many characters. Having said that, this film wasn’t for me. It needed a director who could either cut it down to two hours or keep it eventful enough to warrant two and a half hours.

As much as I came to love these characters, every minute spent with them felt longer than the one before it. Just like a real family reunion.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Purple Noon – Movie Curiosities:

    […] you don’t know what a Criterion DVD is or why it’s so special, I’ll direct you to this article I wrote last year. If you do know what a Criterion DVD is, then perhaps you can understand my thrill at finally […]

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