Criterion Files #492: A Christmas Tale

By  · Published on December 16th, 2010

For regular readers of this column (yes, all both of you – thanks, Mom and Dad; Neil really appreciates the traffic), it may seem like I have something of an obsessive inclination towards choosing French movies. Such an observation would not be incorrect. I’m fascinated by French movies. It’s difficult to deny that, between eating baguettes and smoking cigarettes at cafés, the French have taken the time to make some pretty damn good movies. And not just now. Or in the 60s. Every decade of the twentieth century, from the formative works of Lumiere to the contemplative mood pieces of Claire Denis, the French have had a consistently strong output and have had enormous influence on western film history at large.

For some reason, French movies speak to certain type of cinephile very potently. I haven’t done the math, but it’d be safe to say that more French movies make their way to the US than from any other non-English-speaking country. And it seems every year that a French film makes its way onto the Best Foreign Language Film awards lists. So part of the reason a love for French cinema proliferates amongst Francophiles and cinephiles alike throughout the country is simply a self-determining factor: French films are available and accessible (commercially, not always artistically), thus an interest can grow, which in turn enables more commercial availability. While many international film histories are only selectively accessible to US consumers (I, for one, can only name two or three notable Spanish filmmakers off the top of my head, for instance), France proliferates.

In a chicken-and-the-egg situation, The Criterion Collection operates either because of or has helped embolden Francocinephilia (yes, it’s a word now). You can call it a French or Western bias, or you can make the case that the French have simply been making great, innovative or important films for a long, long time (it’s probably both), but I’d be willing to bet (again, I don’t have the math on hand) that more French movies exist in the Criterion Collection than movies from any other country. One can have a crash-course in the great works of Godard, Renoir, Truffaut, Melville, Malle, Bresson, Tati, Rohmer, Resnais and Clouzot through the collection alone. Where the Criterion Collection may be lacking (and I hesitate to use the word “lacking” in application to an already lopsided preference) is in the antecedents of these great filmmakers; what we don’t see much of in the collection are the histories of those great contemporary French filmmakers who have been influenced by the masters listed above.

Then, in a partnership with IFC, Criterion delivered a one-two punch last year by releasing both Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (2008) and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Chrristmas Tale (both 2008). The timeliness of the pristine US DVD releases of these films only reemphasizes the intriguing synchronicity of their French and US theatrical runs. Much was made by journalists two years ago about a trend in contemporary French art filmmaking in which prominent directors began focusing on intimate family narratives. With these two films in particular, the surface comparisons seem to go on forever, almost like the quaint French version of Deep Impact and Armageddon (also in the Criterion Collection) getting a release a few months apart a decade earlier. Both films involves a family’s reunion through and confrontation over lingering problems as a result of the death of a matriarch. Both involve cultured families who have cultivated their material surroundings with art objects that suggest a long history telling millions of other stories beyond the ones we see onscreen. But while they may be similar in their skeletal structure, the style and thematic preoccupations of each film couldn’t be any more different.

Where Summer Hours concerns itself with themes of material culture and globalization, A Christmas Tale retools the holiday-set dysfunctional family genre. As Philip Lapote says in his excellent essay on the film, as a Christmas movie A Christmas Tale occupies a strange liminal space between The Family Stone and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. When I first saw the film at the 2008 New York Film Festival, I was eight days into screenings, sleepless and exhausted, and very much not looking forward to seeing a two-and-and-a-half-hour movie about Christmas in the middle of September.

But what I came away with was my favorite movie of that year’s festival (which also, it should be noted, screened Summer Hours) and one I’ve revisited several times since. I’ve only recently been the owner of a Blu-ray player, and the major reason I finally came around to buying one was to watch Criterion’s releases in all their high-definition glory. A Christmas Tale was one of my first purchases.

A Christmas Tale is a film I’ve shown to strangers, even non-cinephiles; and for one friend it was one of very few cold buys I’ve ever recommended. A Christmas Tale is one of those films that I not only loved on my first viewing, but one that has been incredibly enriched upon each subsequent viewing in a very short amount of time. The movie is warm, luminous, engrossing, hilarious, and a feast for all the senses – oh, and on top of all that, it has Chiara Mastroianni in it. For me it’s one of those personal films whose appeal is difficult to articulate. It’s a subjective experience I value while recognizing that it may not be universally shared, despite the fact that so far the people I’ve shared it with have enjoyed it nearly as much as I have (or like me too much to tell me if their opinion steered otherwise). Yet, despite my inability to say why exactly this movie is so great, there are a great many things to say about it.

And this is where the film’s entry into the Criterion Collection becomes pertinent and meaningful. In viewing essential entries into the canon of contemporary French cinema, we see how these newer films are the benefactors of the history outlined and selected by Criterion. And this is one of the wonderful things about watching French movies: they’re not only great, but they build upon their country’s previous histories. For instance, there was Jean Renoir, whose work informed the theories of Andre Bazin, whose tutorship molded the minds of the French New Wave. Watching great works of contemporary French cinema is like viewing these histories act in conversation with one another. Assayas and Desplechin have had eclectic careers (to say the least), and both inform their films quite intentionally with their love of their country’s incredible cinematic legacy (Assayas’s Irma Vep is a meta-critique of this exact practice).

But, in taking these two films alone, if Summer Hours represents Assayas via Rohmer, then A Christmas Tale is Desplechin as Truffaut: stylistically dense, occasionally weird, tonally exploratory with an affinity for puzzling character and plot developments (call it cultural difference, but I will never understand the conceded-upon affair that occurs in the film), but at the same time it’s universally accessible, never alienating, and features the most endearing hodgepodge of mentally unstable people you’ll ever see. Like the collage of actors and storylines implemented into its daunting running time, Desplechin’s magnus opus juggles the daunting history of French film style with an equal share of elegance. It’s fitting, then, that the matriarch who serves as the film’s centerpiece is played by Catherine Deneuve, for she, like the film itself, is an embodiment and a reminder of all the great things modern European art cinema continues to give us.

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