Arnaud Desplechin's film Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale), playing in competition here at Cannes, is a tragically comic tale of love, death, and familial strife and forgiveness. The film centers around Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), whose oldest child, Joseph, is diagnosed at a young age with Burkitt's lymphoma.
The boy's disease is curable only with a bone marrow transplant, and neither the parents nor his younger sister, Elizabeth, are compatible. The couple conceives another child in the hopes of making a match to cure their son, but the third child, Henri, is also incompatible, and Joseph dies at the age of six. Eventually the grieving parents have a fourth child, Ivan, and in time the family's wounds over the death of the eldest son heal ... but not really.
We move forward in time to meet the grown Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), now a playwright. When Henri (Quantum of Solace bad guy Mathieu Almaric) is charged with fraudulent bankruptcy, his sister bails him out of the mess -- on the condition that she never see him again. This rift between brother and sister divides the family, as does a disconnect between Junon and Henri. Only Junon's nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) bridges the gap in the family split; he is inseparable from Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) and his wife Sylvia (played by Deneuve's daughter, Chiara Mastroianni), and stays in touch with Henri as well.
When Junon is diagnosed with the same cancer that killed her son, the family is forced to come together. Junon has a rare gene, it turns out, and only banished son Henri and Elizabeth's mentally unstable teenage son, Paul (Emile Bering) are compatible for the bone marrow transplant that has a small chance of saving her life. Paul breaks his mother's edict against Henri attending family gatherings and invites him to celebrate Christmas at the family homestead at Robaix, setting up a holiday reunion fraught with emotion.
There are many layers woven into this story: Junon and Abel's grief at not being able to save their young son; Henri's guilt over being conceived to save his brother, but born without the necessary gene to do so; Junon's guilt over not feeling love for Henri, and Henri's subsequent lack of love for his mother; and Elizabeth's unresolved grief over her brother's death. Add into that mix the revelation over the family holiday that Simon has long loved Sylvia, but gave her up for his cousin, and Sylvia's sudden understanding upon learning this that, perhaps, the life and love she thought she had with Ivan may only be a shadow of what might have been, and you have all the elements of a delicious family tragedy.
This could have been an emotionally wrenching film, but Desplechin keeps the tone light, infusing the drama with humor in the most unexpected places, and offers Henri's girlfriend, Faunia (frequent Desplechin actress Emmanuelle Devos), as the amused Shakespearean witness to the whole affair to lighten the heavy load. Performances by all the cast are excellent.
Deneuve brings grace and humor both to Junon's diagnosis with a potentially terminal illness, and her fractured relationship with her older son, while Roussillon exudes paternal warmth as the loving, benevolent patriarch. Devos bubbles with mirth at every family battle, and Mastroianni, Poupaud and Capulleto excel in their portrayal of the love triangle. Particularly worth noting are Amalric's outstanding performance as the black sheep brother and Bering's portrayal of Paul; both characters struggle over the burden of perhaps being the donor of the bone marrow that could kill Junon if her body should reject the offering.
This kind of familial tale, interwoven with classic literary elements and philosophical questions, is something that Desplechin excels at, and A Christmas Tale is a perfect example of why both international and independent cinema -- and a festival like Cannes, which showcases such films -- are still important today. In the hands of a Hollywood studio, this film would almost certainly devolve into your typically cheesy tale of family holiday angst, perhaps with Sarah Jessica Parker as Elizabeth and Owen Wilson as Henri. The gods of cinema preserve us from anyone getting the idea to do an American remake of this deeply layered, intelligent film, because I have no doubt that it would be ruined beyond all recognition.
A Christmas Tale opens in France on May 21. I hope the film will secure distribution in the United States as well, so that American audiences might also get to appreciate its humor, beauty and depth.