Are the French now making American movies better than Americans are? Last year, they gave us the taut "wrong man" thriller Tell No One (based, fittingly, on an American novel). Now, A Christmas Tale takes the dysfunctional family home-for-the-holidays to a higher level than The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays or countless other half-assed dramedies ever dreamed of. Superficially, the members of the Vuillard family may sound familiar: mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) maintains a stoic reserve while dying of leukemia; father Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) weathers tragedy with gentle humor, loyalty and warmth; big sister Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) is a successful playwright yet a frazzled mother of suicidal son Paul (Emile Berling); middle child Henri (Mathieu Almaric in a remarkable, propulsive performance) is a forever-in-debt gadabout and cad; and the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), is happily married to Sylvia (Chiara Mastioanni), who secretly harbors a mutual attraction with Ivan's cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). Like the Tenenbaums, they return home as adults who haven't fully outgrown their resentments, insecurities and desires -- all heightened by Junon's search for a bone marrow donor among them.
After an hour of borderline soap-opera theatrics and unnervingly deadpan humor, with another ninety minutes to go, I was leery that A Christmas Tale was going to wear me out. Yet the movie begins to work an almost imperceptible magic. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin mixes a naturalistic style with sudden flourishes that never feel out of place. Characters talk directly to the camera or provide voiceovers that offer clues to their deepest thoughts and feelings, but not everything is spelled out for us. The film's central mystery -- Elizabeth's loathing for her brother Henri, whom she banished for five years -- is at once self-evident and maddeningly unexplained. Their entirely subtextual relationship is balanced nicely by the hearts-on-their-sleeve Ivan/Sylvia/Simon triangle, which builds to a surprisingly mature and joyful consummation. (Imagine the histrionics and/or hijinks in a Hollywood version.)
Desplechin introduces themes so off-handedly you're not even aware of their presence until near the end, when Junon finds a potential donor and says, half-jokingly, that she's "taking back what's mine." A Christmas Tale is about the give-and-take between parents and children, between siblings, between all blood relations. Elizabeth sees Henri (rather excessively) as evil -- a parasite returning to devour his host. Desplechin shows us that the truth is much more complicated; yet in one of his closing images, an astonishing close-up of Henri's eyes, he suggests it's there if we dare to look.
After a brief misfire with Cars, Pixar has returned cannier than ever at branding quality more than actually delivering it. Like WALL-E, Up was hailed as a towering masterwork before anyone actually saw it, and anyone who begged to differ was the type who likes to steal babies and kick puppies. (They've learned from Uncle Walt well.) The company's predominant techno-boys (gender emphasis intended) are such wizards at what they do nobody bothers to notice that their storytelling prowess has only two gears -- manic zaniness and heartfelt schmaltz, forever shifted and never blended.
The first half of Up is, like WALL-E, about its protagonist's lonely life of solitude; and I might have been more affected by the montage of Carl and his wife's happy marriage up to her death if I hadn't read about it beforehand in twenty-five reviews. The second half, where Carl tries to fulfill her dream of living in South America by taking flight in a balloon-powered house with a (yawn) kiddie stowaway on board, doesn't embarrassingly implode like the third act of WALL-E did. The movie remains lovely to look at and shows off Pixar's knack for sight gags: I laughed at the talking dogs and giant bird even as I never stopped wondering what the hell they were doing in this story. Up is ultimately pretty thin stuff; and for all its hot air about adventure and dreams, as oddly impersonal as nearly all their other films. (The exceptions are Brad Bird's, which have other problems.) When Carl pulls his floating house through the jungle, my mind left his limp narrative and leaped to memories of Fitzcarraldo and the thought that the mad, bug-eyed Klaus Kinski was more fantastical than anything Pixar could ever concoct.