Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Film review: A Christmas Tale

I wondered when the standout French film of the year would land on my desk, and here it is just in time for Christmas, although you won’t be able to see it in UK cinemas until early next year.

Director Arnaud Desplechin has some serious prior: 2005’s Kings and Queen (starring his muse Almaric, pictured here after a glass of red too many) was rewarded with multiple gongs and it was clear from this César (French Oscars) triumph that he has a winning way with big name actors and large casts.

Set in the northern town of Roubaix (place of Desplechin’s birth – what a nice change to see a star-studded film set outside of Paris), we witness the gathering of the Vuillard clan for Christmas, each member having undergone a compatibility test that might save the matriarch Junon (played with trademark understatement by Deneuve) from liver cancer.

The offspring – a heavy-drinking black sheep, played with barnstorming gusto and lip by Almaric; a sad and bitter eldest sister, Anne Consigny; and a smooth and thoughtful fixer, Melvil Poupaud – harbour no end of defects (mainly self-medicated) and combine to form a perfectly dysfunctional family. Much of the humour and pathos in this tightly scripted drama comes from bickering and seething tensions. Meanwhile, Junon faces her illness with grace and fortitude.

Stylish, witty, poignant and intense, with a superlative cast and outstandingly fleshed out lesser characters, this film knocks the genre of family reunion drama – so often marred by slush in Hollywood films – into an artfully cocked beret. Go and see it.

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