‘Christmas Tale’ a caustic tour-de-force

By Christopher Smith,
Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 5:57 p.m.

In theaters

A CHRISTMAS TALE directed by Arnaud Desplechin, written by Desplechin and Emmanual Bourdieu, 150 minutes, not rated. In French with English subtitles. Now playing, Railroad Square Cinema, Waterville.

Here’s a tip for those who have seen the festive trailer for the new Arnaud Desplechin movie, “A Christmas Tale,” and might, upon viewing it, be expecting something light: Don’t. The trailer is as misleading as that old holiday trick — the large wrapped box tucked beneath the Christmas tree that features something smaller and, in some cases, more disappointing inside.

Nobody should come to this movie expecting whimsy. There is no exalting in the heralding of the holidays here (which would be fine if the movie wasn’t selling itself as such). Nobody should expect joy — at least not the traditional sort. There is joy here, but usually it comes only when one character watches another being emotionally trampled, which can be fun to watch when it’s handled with wit (it often is) or cruel when it isn’t (which sometimes is the case).

As charming as the film’s title sounds, here is a movie, distinctly French in its clipped rhythms and melodramatic arc, that’s anything but charming. It is, in fact, a jumbled, caustic tour-de-force that’s so aware of the entire oeuvre of French films, you sometimes wonder whether Desplechin is making a satire on French movies themselves. Since it’s difficult to tell, that’s up for debate.

From Desplechin and Emmanual Bourdieu’s screenplay, “A Christmas Tale” is about one dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas when really, they never, ever should have gathered in the first place.

With the exception of the film’s gentle patriarch, Abel (a wonderful Jean-Paul Roussillon), and his kind son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), most of this smoky bunch hate each other. One family member, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), has been banished from the family for six years by his sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a playwright who loathes him with a passion otherwise lacking in her dead life, the likes of which are complicated by her emotionally unstable son (Emile Berling), who sees wolves in mirrors.

The family’s matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve in a terrific performance), has a hardened core that belies her beauty. She’s as mean as they come, content to tell her son Henri to his face that she never loved him. Bemused, Henri returns the favor by stating the same. That they do this while sharing a cigarette on a bench gets to the heart of the film’s twisted tone. Meanwhile, a third son, Simon (Laurent Capelluto), is in love with Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Trouble is, she’s also in love with him — and where do you think that leads?

All of this occurs over the film’s inflated, 2.5-hour running time while death hovers along the periphery. Junon is battling cancer, which will be deadly if one of her children isn’t an exact match for her bone marrow type. And if one of them is, what does this mean for the family? Will it bring them together?

After all the ugliness that has come before it, the question isn’t whether that’s even possible, but whether audiences will care.

Grade: C+

On Blu-ray disc

THE THIRD MAN directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, 104 minutes, not rated.

Carol Reed’s 1950 classic, “The Third Man,” now out and looking great on Blu-ray disc, is a British noir based on Graham Greene’s script. It stars Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, a naive American trying to track down an old college friend named Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in post World War II Vienna.

Good luck to Holly.

When he arrives in Vienna, he soon learns that Harry has been murdered, leaving in his wake a gorgeous, loyal girlfriend named Anna (Alida Valli), who may or may not know more about Harry’s death than anyone.

Not that Anna is talking. Still, persistent Holly, a writer of cheap Westerns that sell well in the States, has a nose for things that don’t smell right, particularly when something stinks as badly as the “facts” surrounding Harry’s death. Plaguing it are a wealth of inconsistencies and doubletalk with Holly quickly coming to the conclusion that all isn’t what it seems.

What ensues isn’t an eager crowd-pleaser. It’s distinctly British, mischievous and off-beat with a wonderfully bizarre zither score by Anton Karas and cinematography by Robert Krasker that defines the genre — it smacks of German expressionism.

Infused with Hitchcockean undertones, the film wants to keep you at arm’s length, and it succeeds. It’s meant to be isolating with long stretches spoken in German without subtitles. That choice will be off putting to some, but it’s actually rather brilliant. It allows you to feel Holly’s isolation as he roots around the rubble of Vienna for Harry, snubbed by a country that’s not his own.

The film builds to a terrific ending with the sewers of Vienna giving themselves over to a paranoiac chase scene, the likes of which occasionally feel as if shadows are chasing shadows. Also strong are the performances from the smaller, colorful bit roles played by character actors straight down to Cotton, Valli and Welles. Apart, these three are a force. But when they collide — and they do collide here — they turn “The Third Man” into a singular achievement.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/12/14/living/lsquochristmas-talersquo-a-caustic-tourdeforce/ printed on September 23, 2014