News and Commentary – The Ultimate Thanksgiving Movie
Why is the greatest Thanksgiving movie ever made called “A Christmas Tale”? (Which, we hasten to add, is not to be confused with “A Christmas Carol.”) Because it is French. And, as director Arnaud Desplechin explained, they don’t have Thanksgiving in the Old World. But he wanted to tell a version of that particular type of story: the convergence of an extended family returning back to the old homestead—with newcomers, ex-lovers, and assorted relatives and friends all along for the ride, dragging a lifetime of emotional baggage in tow. You know, Thanksgiving. And so the American holiday “became Europeanised to Christmas, where the family gets together under obligation . . . and you can see the fights building up.”
What can be said, other than that A Christmas Tale is (to this point) the greatest film by one of our finest contemporary filmmakers. (Kings and Queen holds the second spot on my Desplechin list, but almost all of his movies are very much worth seeking out.) Christmas Tale, from 2008, has secured a place on our “greatest films of all time” list, grabbing a seat next to films by Bergman, Chabrol, Kubrick, Welles . . . the list goes on—you can read it for yourself. And let us throw down this gauntlet, once deployed by Martin Scorsese in praise of the cinema of Sam Fuller: “It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, you don’t like rock and roll . . . ” Well, here’s the Mid Century Cinema version: If you don’t like A Christmas Tale, you don’t like the movies. (Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong, but it makes the point.)
Audaciously complex, spirited, often funny, deeply moving – a friend of mine has compared it to a Great Russian novel – the film is a pleasure to experience, carried along effortlessly by an outstanding cast of Desplechin regulars, including Emmanuelle Devos and the filmmaker’s go-to alter-ego Mathieu Amalric, as well as the legendary Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s real life daughter), Anne Consigny, and a flawless Jean Paul Roussillon—it’s hard to believe he’s not actually your favorite French uncle. It is also gloriously cinematic, alive with what we once canonized as “filminess”. Or as J. Hoberman put it, “A Christmas Tale is deft, playful, fluid, haunting, and filled with the joy of filmmaking.” (After you’ve watched the movie, check out these reviews by A. O. Scott and Andrew Sarris as well.)
If A Christmas Tale has a flaw (and I’m not sure that it does), for me it would be with the weight of the apparently modest revelation shared by one character with another—one you don’t see coming, as it arises in a conversation that takes place in a peripheral corner of the tapestry. But the moment is so powerful that it’s not easy for the viewer to recover. (I’m not going to tell you what it is, but it takes place about ninety-three minutes in.) It packs an emotional punch that buckles the knee, and you’ve got to stay on your feet for the rest of the film. But it’s a rare movie that can bring you to a place like that, so as flaws go, it’s one that’s easy to live with.
So, you might ask before firing up the VCR, what is this movie about? No worries. At one level, it is about the intermittent crises of a colorful and eccentric family—a masterly crafted evening’s entertainment. But there is also more, much more, and for that we will give the last word to Roger Ebert. “All the while, something is preparing itself beneath the surface. In the film's last scene (in the final two shots, as I recall) all the hidden weight of the film uncoils and pounces. It really was about something, and it knew it all the time.”
"Still don't love me?" Amalric with Deneuve
Emmanuelle Devos as Faunia
It's Hard to Explain
Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), Not Quite Sure What She Just Heard
"They Never Told Me"
A Daughter's Question
A Father's Answer