Sunday, February 22, 2009

Muriels: Best Picture, 8th Place

A Christmas Tale (119 points/12 votes)

A Christmas Tale is my favorite film of last year, and yet I find that I have a very hard time convincing people to see it. The title suggests either Dickens to a certain crowd or ‘You’re gonna shoot your eye out, kid’ to others; I’m sure plenty have sense memory recall of The Family Stone or Stepmom and find that the concept of a family drama set around a Christmas at home with the parents is something they don’t want to stomach. Desplechin doesn’t so much subvert this genre as embrace it while scraping away the sentimental treacle that usually soft-pedals the drama into a feel-good glow. He has also made a film that is very much in the spirit of Christmas: with second chances, self-sacrifice and even familial joy as some of the major themes touched upon in the film. Of course, there’s a lot more than that to offer here; so much that I was pleasantly surprised by how much more depth I got from it on second viewing.

“The second viewing was a revelation in many ways. First, it was an emotional breakthrough for me with the film as I first received it with an engaged by non-emotional reaction but the second viewing was an emotional rollercoaster for me, with some of the sub-plots striking me so hard that I had trouble composing myself for a long passage at the middle of the film. The second viewing also helped me discover a thematic thread tipped off by the several allusions to Vertigo (the shot in the museum and several soundtrack cues are either directly from Herrmann’s score for Vertigo or are close appropriations of that great score).

“These allusions allowed me to mediate on one of the richest thematic through lines from both films, which is the idea of change being forced upon a character by someone driven by a death. In Vertigo, Scottie changes Judy Barton into Madeleine Elster because of his obsession with Elster and was himself changed during the opening sequence where he accidentally allowed a cop to fall from to his death. Likewise in A Christmas Tale, we have a childhood death in the prologue that inspires the way all of the characters behave and the roles that they take within the family. The death has caused Henry to be a screw-up con man, caused his sister Elizabeth (who blames Henry for the death of the unseen older brother) to banish him from the family, causing his eventual attempt at redemption and leading to the marriage of the youngest son, which we discover was a bit of charity from his elder sibling and cousin.

“The intersecting character dynamics are a bit hard to wrap your head around at times in A Christmas Tale and I’m sure the gifts of the film will continue to give with further viewings. It is a complicated work and emotionally exhausting, but Desplechin’s work is masterful at keeping all the balls in the air and enticing you to follow him even as he veers off into strange flights of fancy and plot or character threads that dead-end, like Devos’s character Faunia which is a charming and charismatic creation that is allowed to slip through our fingers and disappears from the film way before you want to let her go (Desplechin cleverly makes her Jewish to explain why she is not allowed to participate in the second half of the film). I still slightly prefer Kings & Queen to the more controlled A Christmas Tale but I think it is safe to say that Arnaud Desplechin is the most exciting filmmaker working right now.” ~ Jason Overbeck

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