By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009 12:00 AM
The first hint that "A Christmas Tale" probably won't be your standard, holly-jolly holiday fare: the opening scene, in which a woman -- soon-to-be diagnosed with terminal cancer -- collapses, bringing a tray full of tea cups clattering to the floor along. Another hint that "A Christmas Tale" won't be your standard, holly-jolly holiday fare: the second scene, in which that woman's daughter tells her therapist: "I'm sterile. I'm unhappy. Angry. Seething with anger."
Um, okay ... so who wants to munch on some peppermint bark and sing "Jingle Bell Rock"?
Actually, the dark themes in Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" are exactly what make it such a refreshing change of pace from the predictable, candy-cane-coated nonsense that Hollywood usually spits out during the holiday season. Released in theaters last year and out today on DVD ($39.95) and Blu-ray ($39.95) courtesy of the Criterion Collection, this absorbing French film focuses on the wounds that get reopened when the members of the Vuillard family attempt to find a match for their ailing matriarch's bone marrow transplant and, in their own dysfunctional way, celebrate the holidays together.
An essay by author Phillip Lopate, included in the DVD's booklet, calls the film "a tougher version" of "The Family Stone"; it's an apt comparison. Desplechin's engagingly moody, messy work also stands as a more realistic and experimental piece of filmmaking, one that's mercifully devoid of any squirm-inducing attempts at screwball comedy. Even when things are at their most intense within the Vuillard's Roubaix townhome -- say, when a husband punches out a brother-in-law, or a son leads a Christmas Eve toast by calling his mother and sister names that can't be printed in a family newspaper -- the story-telling is so absorbing that the viewer feels totally comfortable about settling in for a 2 1/2-hour cinematic stay.
Desplechin -- who directs a solid ensemble of French actors, including Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and the ever-regal Catherine Deneuve -- bathes many of his scenes in golden hues even when the plot developments don't necessarily scream "happy glow." All that light gleams particularly beautifully in Blu-ray's high-definition format. But the extras on both editions, sadly, don't add much to the mix.
The only special features come in the form of a 35-minute documentary, called "Arnaud's Tale," in which Deneuve, Amalric and Desplechin discuss the experience of making the movie, and a short film, "L'Aimée," made by Desplechin during his father's move out of the family home. Of the two, "L'Aimée" proves more deserving of attention. While it's nice to hear directly from the key players in "Arnaud's Tale," the documentary never takes us fully inside the movie-making experience. "L'Aimée," on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin's relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like "A Christmas Tale," a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort," "L'Aimée" introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family's history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.