Everything’s at the threshold in A Christmas Tale. Holiday time, transition, reunion, naturally, but also disease and surgery, grudge and reconciliation, degeneration and regeneration. It’s all come to a head, and Arnaud Desplechin’s certainly proven himself in recent years the director to handle such an overflow—of information and joy and panic. Of course this isn’t The Family Stone territory: added to this heady stew is a surfeit of Desplechin’s jingle-jangles—jazz segueing to hip-hop and classical music; Funny Face and The Ten Commandments; personal letters read aloud directly to the camera; superimpositions and dissolving collages; decidedly French political incorrectness and vulgarities; intimations of noir, of melodrama, of mystery. In other words, this is Desplechin’s Christmas family album, and you’re free to exit through the front door if you’re not feeling the spirit.
The proper words to describe A Christmas Tale’s tone—regardless of its inability, or perhaps unwillingness to stick with just one for more than five minutes at a time—might be grim elation. And what better way to represent the holidays than with such conflicted emotions? That sense of excitement leading up to family gatherings is usually tempered, if not nullified, by the slight disappointment of the event itself. Our greatest works of secular Christmas art, from Dickens’s ghost stories to Norman Rockwell’s tattered illustrations, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Fanny and Alexander to Eyes Wide Shut, ground the merriment of the season in unwelcome reminders of mortality. A time of transition, Christmas is also a time of haunting: the specter of death hangs over even the most fleeting moment of laughter and love. The year is over; people have died, people will die, and we’re all one step closer to the end. Carols, hymns, and feasts devote themselves to birth and renewal, but snow, long nights, and the closing of the year speak to decay. Desplechin’s film, appropriately, begins at a gravesite, years earlier than the narrative proper and the entire film is informed by this funereal moment: Abel (Jean-Pierre Roussillon) speaking of the loss of his six-year-old son, Joseph, to lymphoma.
Though he’s not as sanctimonious a moralizer, Joseph might be this story’s Jacob Marley. He’s dead, to begin with, and without his death, nothing wondrous would come of the events to follow. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of A Christmas Tale.