Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#492: A Christmas Tale

(Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

A Christmas Tale is probably the weakest of the recent IFC co-releases, or at least the one least deserving of a place in Criterion's catalog. At once depressing and drunk with cinematic flourishes, Desplechin's film is epic in its attempted scope (even Criterion's description of the film calls it "messy") and ultimately more trouble than its worth, mixing in dull periods of decaying family life with fleeting moments of bliss.

The film evokes some of the better movies of the early 2000s: The Royal Tennenbaums and Amélie come immediately to mind, the former for its penetrating sadness in what is ostensibly a lighthearted family film and the latter for its reckless abandon stylistically. Desplechin surely throws the kitchen sink in here for two and a half hours, using everything from puppets to irises to breaking the fourth wall and flashbacks. Sometimes there are plot threads or flourishes of cinema that make you want to keep watching. These elements don't take you out of the movie so much as glide by you on your course, like a beautiful roadside attraction on a highway to a longer destination. Too often, though, the movie relies on the family's naturalistic relationships, which are unable to sustain interest over the running time of a film that should have been 45 minutes shorter. Instead of memorable, the moments of technical inspiration feel gimmicky, and instead of filling me with conflicting emotions about these real characters, the movie made me want to run from these immensely unlikable people.

In this last way, the movie it reminded me most of was Rachel Getting Married (though there are numerous more films that use a similarly unlikable -  usually related - group of people to get their point across, e.g. About Schmidt and Criterion entry The Ice Storm). That Jonathan Demme film is technically crafted and acted beautifully, and represents one of the more realistic and recognizable portraits of a damaged family. But who wants to sit around and watch angry, spiteful, damaged people for two hours?

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