Unhappy families (or the hideously modern coinage, dysfunctional) have permeated world literature ever since a very famous novel made them its point de départ. After Tolstoy's titular adulteress, it has been customary to underscore why people do not love each other rather than why they do; why their pain, often caused by mistrust or a misunderstanding, is what ultimately measures them in a cruel world; and why we should be thankful for our own small comforts because most of humanity is wounded beyond repair. Now I do not for a second believe the nonsense about unhappy families and their infinite variety; such an observation can only come from the mind of someone unsure of his own peacefulness – and Tolstoy's violent conversion shortly thereafter attests to his mounting doubts. What I do believe is that although love may assume myriad forms, it remains our only weapon against otherwise omnipotent time. A watchword captioning the movements of this film.
We begin at a graveyard and in eulogy, even if it has been forty years since Joseph Vuillard, beloved eldest son of Abel (the late Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve), succumbed to leukemia. This tragedy – Joseph was barely school-aged – has become the event that always repeats itself, the only event that really exists in the history of this family. The parents' relationship to one another, as well as to their three surviving children, Elisabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric), and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), will forever be defined by Joseph's brief life, for it is because of him that they all have elected to suffer. The immediate reason involves the circumstances of Joseph's demise: in need of a bone marrow donor, the Vuillards conceive Henri then discover the newborn is not a genetic match (what is now termed, quite dreadfully, a "savior sibling") for Joseph, who soon dies. Junon spitefully spurns the unwitting Henri for his failure; Abel attempts to compensate by stubbornly rescuing Henri from every sort of trouble, be it financial, drug or alcohol-related, or romantic; and Elisabeth, who may have been passed over as a donor because of her gender, begins to harbor resentment for Henri that expands into loathing and melancholy ("Why am I always sad?"). The conventional explanation for such feelings is a defense of her mother, to whom she feels very close even if the sentiment seems unrequited. But about halfway through the film, another possibility surfaces which, while ghastly, gains in likelihood as we learn more about the Vuillards, whom Ivan's wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) deems quite "extraordinary" even if they "like to pass themselves off as ordinary." And that possibility comes in the neurotic and piteous shape of Elisabeth's troubled teenage son, Paul (Émile Berling).
Paul's secret may not strike the first-time viewer as obvious, but a review of A Christmas Tale paves the path of dark suggestion. As our film opens, Junon has just been diagnosed with the same ailment that killed Joseph, satisfying Abel's lifelong curiosity as to how his son could have inherited such pestilence. She, too, will require a bone marrow transplant to survive, and in an unusual digression, the family gathers around a blackboard while Paul's habitually indisposed father Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) calculates her risk and reward for getting or rejecting treatment or a transplant. Each family member takes a test to determine his suitability as a donor, and Paul turns out to be, along with one other member we need not mention, the closest match. Elisabeth demurs in her parental consent, ostensibly owing to Paul's worsening mental health (in an early flashback, he is seen brandishing a knife before his parents), yet somehow we sense there are other considerations. So when the family assembles in full force for the first time in six years out of allegiance to Junon, who is merrily indifferent to such symbolic displays, we begin to ponder a battery of questions that apparently no one wants to answer. Why did Elisabeth six years ago make the condition of settling Henri's debts his "banishment" from the household? Why is Henri accused of writing wicked and compromising letters (one of which is read to us, although it is hardly offensive) and why does he deny doing so? What does Paul see out of the corner of his eye one evil evening? Why does Ivan take to Paul so quickly? Why does Henri tell Claude, "you don't count," provoking the latter to beat him senseless? And, most importantly perhaps, what is the letter that Elisabeth gives Henri as a Christmas gift, a letter addressed to her but one he immediately recognizes and hides? There is also that unnerving grin Paul offers the camera one time when no one is looking – its implication chills the spine – that seems counterpoised by a sincere, almost desperate prayer during Midnight Mass. So sincere and desperate, in fact, that one could be persuaded he was – and we have said far too much already.
A Christmas Tale has nonplussed a number of viewers who foolishly expected loose ends to be compressed into a beautiful bow, but such is not the style of Desplechin. That the Vuillards are cultured – Abel extemporizes a translation aloud from a famous, if second-rate German work to console Elisabeth, who is herself a well-known playwright, and Henri plays the piano effortlessly, with his delirium tremens a minor obstacle – should not diminish our impression of them as indifferent to their good fortune. The only thing they ever wanted was for Joseph to live; Joseph, who has "transformed" Abel "into a son" and himself into the deceased and worshipped ancestor. Desplechin tries to distract less patient viewers with two silly love affairs: the first involves Henri and a Jewish woman called Faunia, who appears at one point to divine the family's secret and accept it ("You're wasting your time with him," says Abel of Henri, to which she confidently counters, "I'm not so sure about that"). The other, far more ridiculous romance has Sylvia coming to a startling (for her) conclusion about the Vuillards' antisocial cousin Simon, who paints professionally, "washes dishes every weekend" at his cousins' spacious mansion in Roubaix, and tipples himself into a sullen stupor. This whole subplot, by far the film's weakest link, gains in significance if one deems Simon as much of an outsider as Sylvia: neither one is truly privy to the inner sanctum of the Vuillards' soul, which is labyrinthine if not indefinitely complex. Which is why Elisabeth's crumbling psyche is brimming with material for her pieces, why Ivan's small sons also write plays (and stage a gory mélange of several fairy tales), and why Junon possesses the first name of a Roman deity as well as that goddess's demeanor. And that is also perhaps why Paul's last name is Dedalus.