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Vol. LXII, No. 48
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

I’VE GOT THIS SECRET THAT I HAVE TO TELL YOU!: Simon (Laurent Capuletto, left) is about to reveal to his cousin’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) that he has been carrying a torch for her ever since they were teenagers.

A Christmas Tale: Holiday Film Has Family Convening for Eventful Reunion

Kam Williams

Don’t be fooled by director Arnaud Desplechin’s deceptively benign title; this movie doesn’t spin a heartwarming yarn in the manner of such seasonal classics as It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. No miracles lay in wait for any unfortunate orphans in this sober story set in France.

If Jerry Springer ever decided to shoot his TV show in Paris, the protagonists of this picture, the Vuillards, would make excellent guests. This dysfunctional family has more compelling drama than you can shake a French baguette at.

As the movie begins, we find the clan convening at the family home prior to the Christmas holidays for a reunion that is guaranteed to stir up trouble.

The head of the family is matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve), a cancer patient suffering from the same strain of leukemia that took the life of one of her sons when the boy was only seven-years-old. Now, she and her husband, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), have three adult children, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), Elizabeth (Ann Consigny), and Ivan (Melvil Poupard). Each of them arrives burdened with emotional baggage and unresolved sibling rivalries.

For example, playwright Elizabeth has little patience for her ne’er-do-well brother Henri, because she once had to bail him out of a bad investment for which their father had cosigned. The two haven’t spoken to each other since, so this occasion offers an opportunity for long simmering fireworks to explode. Ivan, on the other hand, has issues with Simon (Laurent Capuletto), an orphaned cousin raised under the same roof.

We learn that Simon has been harboring a secret crush on Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) since they were teenagers, so what better place to reveal his feelings for her than at the Christmas reunion.

The above conflicts are just the tip of the iceberg, because Junon is urgently in need of a bone marrow transplant. Thus, the burning question which permeates the family reunion is whether any of her relatives can provide a suitable match for her potentially life saving transplant.

Despite the grim overarching theme, A Christmas Tale’s absorbing array of richly developed characters embroiled in incestuous relationships easily outweighs the unpleasant tone of this potentially depressing story. All that’s missing is Jerry Springer refereeing the play-by-play.

Excellent (3.5 stars). Unrated. In French with subtitles. Running time: 152 minutes Studio: IFC Films.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

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