Arnaud Desplechin’s mercurial, knotty and cinematically vibrant drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering was the top film of my Best of the Year list in 2008. Now A Christmas Tale (Criterion) arrives on DVD in a presentation worthy of it. Directing with an even more restless energy than he showed in Kings and Queen, Desplechin sketches out a family tragedy, the untimely death of a first-born, that precedes the story by decades and then only overtly references it a few times, even as the shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the odd sibling dynamics that have caused eldest daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Ivan (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).
“Henri is the disease,” she tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same disease that killed Joseph at age six, the same disease that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years; they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same disease that haunts her own son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas he’s been banished from for five years; this helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.