Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Un conte de Noel

Yesterday I saw "The Christmas Tale," ("Un conte de Noel"), a French film that has all the standard plot points of a dysfunctional family drama: estranged child returning home, ailing parent, unrequited love, precocious grandchildren, rambling old family home, lingering sibling resentments, new lover/spouse thrown into the mix, and of course, the long-held tradition of a play/musical/variety show as part of the holiday festivities. I think I just described "Dan in Real Life" or "The Family Stone" or about a dozen other films I've seen in the past five years. But, this movie isn't like any of them, and not just because it's French. Catherine Deneuve plays Junon, the matriarch of the family, and we immediately learn that as a young mother, she became pregnant in hopes that the placenta blood would provide a match for her six year old son, dying of leukemia. It doesn't, and little Joseph dies, leaving a younger sister (now suddenly the oldest child), and a newborn brother (Henri, blatantly disregarded by his own mother), and soon, a nearly-ignored much younger brother, Ivan. They're all grown up now, but of course things are not less complicated. Henri (played by the intriguing Mathieu Almaric, of "Diving Bell and Butterfly" and the current Bond film) has been banished from the family for five years on the request of his sister Elizabeth, who is dealing with a schizophrenic son. Ivan's wife Sylvia is inexplicably hated by her mother-in-law (and, ironically, is played by the real-life daughter of Deneuve), and loved-by-afar by another member of the family.

I'm not giving too much away, because this is the setup we get in the first ten minutes, and then the movie takes 2 1/2 hours to unfold. (I had no idea when I sat down in the theater, such is the joyous behavior of a lazy vacation day. I'm glad I didn't know.) It's the way in which it unfolds which is unique - actors speak directly to the camera at various times, voicing their inner thoughts; passages from books are read aloud; flashback narrations are accompanied by drawings or actual photos of the actors as children; the camera moves into new scenes with a narrow round-lens view, sometimes not widening for several long seconds. Oh, and there are odd quirks that I didn't like, as when a character receives a heart pendant on a string and holds it up, and suddenly the pendant is swinging over a sweeping shot of the city. But there is math! Several chalkboards and whiteboards are put to use to attempt to calculate the chance and length of Junon's survival with or without the transplant surgery she herself now needs.

There were times during the movie that I wasn't liking it, but more that I was, and on balance, I enjoyed it. I keep thinking about it, too, which to me is the mark of a really successful movie, something that lingers with you after you leave the theater. (After 2 1/2 hours of French, too, I keep hearing bastardized French phrases in my head. I took 1 year of French in high school, many many many years ago, not enough to even scrape by.)

What I liked most about the film is that there isn't one defining incident that has shaped these people into complicated and flawed individuals. (Even Elizabeth, who we see early in the movie at her therapist's, admits a general feeling of mourning which pervades her life, but says it can't be the loss of Joseph, because that's too obvious.) We never really learn why Elizabeth dislikes her brother so - there's no "a-ha!" moment of discovering something like he abused her or killed her pet rabbit or anything so simplistic. In fact, other characters ruminate over the question, too, much like a real group of people would. That is what I liked most about the movie - it was about real people, without neatly wrapped up endings or drastic turnarounds, or satisfying resolution. But there were small moments of understanding, and connection. And that is all we can hope for from our families, isn't it?


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