©Jean-Claude Lother/Why Not Productions
We make time: by flirting or declaring a break, by observing holidays or arranging the passing moments into music and theater. And time is always ready to unmake us. Maybe death comes in due season–with the fullness of time–or maybe it strikes like a Shakespearean tyrant, sending us off without reason or warning.
All these types of making and undoing–celebratory and mournful, measured and arbitrary, fleshly and fanciful–get gloriously mixed together within the running time of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. You settle in for the duration: a very fluid two and a half hours, in the course of which no fewer than a dozen characters will take turns commanding your attention. They are members of a middle-class French family, gathered in a typically drab industrial city for their typically fractious holiday reunion; but given the surrounding atmosphere, you might almost see them as goddesses and queens, wood nymphs and bedazzled wanderers. A phantom wolf prowls the house; a fabled monster threatens to burn up the mother; and a snatch of music, running from scene to scene, tells you the world’s been turned upside down. The Vuillard children have come home from Paris in late December, but the soundtrack keeps playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Surely the parents of this clan, like an ill-matched Titania and Oberon, could have been united only by magic. The father (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is squat, croaking, rheumy-eyed, blubber-lipped, and labors under the doomed name of Abel. But somehow, though by trade he dyes fabrics, his métier is to radiate wisdom and delight. Somehow, though accurately self-described as “an old toad,” he enjoys marriage to a golden beauty, who bears the divine name of Junon and the form of Catherine Deneuve.
She is a fallible deity, as are most mothers in their children’s minds. When first seen, fixing a tea tray in her house in Roubaix, she taps shut a cabinet with her hip, as would any mortal in her kitchen, and then precipitates the plot by falling down. But after her vulnerability has been diagnosed–an aggressive cancer, treatable only on a dare–Junon resumes her serene imperiousness. Perhaps she will allow one of her offspring to prove worthy of her by donating bone marrow for a transplant. “It’s not done,” her oncologist protests, on strictly medical grounds. (He doesn’t know this is going to be a competition.) Junon shrugs off the objection. She gave life to her children, she says. Why shouldn’t one of them give life to her?
She is clearly not a goddess of the self-sacrificing kind; and if her reasoning seems topsy-turvy, it’s no more irrational than her brood. The most conventional of her children is the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who packs liquor bottles in his pockets, boasts of his history of madness and maintains a less-than-bourgeois career as a turntable artist. At first glance, this lean and handsome blade with the buzz-cut head and dashing wardrobe is an orchestrator of mischief. (He’s the one who shows up at Christmas with the box of fireworks.) But it’s all bluster. Soon enough you realize that Ivan is a homebody, wholeheartedly devoted to his glowing wife (Chiara Mastroianni) and two small sons.