Tuesday 8 September 2009

A Christmas Tale (Revisited)

Any film worth its salt requires a second viewing or more. Watching Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale at the London Film Festival last year I was (mainly) irritated by what seemed a pretentious, incoherent, stylistically tricksy and (at two and a half hours) over-stuffed take on the family-gathering-at-Christmas movie, less insightful (and a good deal less enjoyable) than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Watching it again, recently, I found myself exhilarated by the qualities which had annoyed me first time through. As Kings and Queen proved, pretension and incoherence are central to Desplechin’s aesthetic - along with manic energy, a lot of talk, a barrage of literary and other allusions, the oddest possible music choices, and a surprising amount of tenderness peaking through the awful things that his characters say and do to one another. A Christmas Tale’s main intertexts would seem to be from American cinema - Magnolia and The Royal Tennenbaums spring to mind - and the movie is not quite as successful as either of those. But what Desplechin gets on screen is the complexity and sheer elusiveness of people and of experience - you can’t sum any member of the Vuillard clan up in a sentence - and performances from Catherine Denueve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Cosigny, Chiara Mastroanni, Melvil Poupaud and the godly Mathieu Amalric which revel in those contradictions. Crammed with detail and oddity and quotations and loosely dangling strands, from its puppetry-of-the-genesis opening to its final gracious Shakespearean benediction, A Christmas Tale is alive, as messy, unresolved and unpredictable as existence itself.

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