Arnaud Desplechin’s haute holiday tale “A Christmas Tale” is probably my favorite film of the year, barring a few yet-unseen stragglers like “Benjamin Button,” and from the reviews it’ll probably make plenty of critic top ten lists. Therefore Armond White at the New York Press dutifully dislikes it, though despite the requisite snipe at the hipster hoards, he can’t summon much heat, sighing that the film is “the latest pretext for director Arnaud Desplechin to wax ironic,” but allowing that “A Christmas Tale isn’t repugnant, just regressive.”
Elsewhere, praise ranges from measured to ecstatic. At the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls “A Christmas Tale” “a movie that is almost indecently satisfying and at the same time elusive, at once intellectually lofty — marked by allusions to Emerson, Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney as well as Nietzsche — and as earthy as the passionate provincial family that is its heart and cosmos and reason for being.” “[I]ts large down payments of nastiness are put toward well-earned, heartwarming reconciliations,” finds Leo Goldsmith at indieWIRE, while Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly cautions “[D]on’t mistake this movie for one of those mawkish domestic autopsies that begins with a gasp-inducing revelation from a designated black sheep and ends with a group hug and a voice-over whining on about how family relations are all very complex. They surely are, and there surely is rapprochement…but the tone is one of palate-cleansing astringency.”
Having seen the film twice, Stephanie Zacharek at Salon admits “I’m no closer to understanding how Desplechin works his weird magic… He lays out a large, potentially incomprehensible story in tattered pieces that somehow come together into an extraordinary whole.” “A Christmas Tale is a film experience to be seen and savored for its exquisite delineation of human feelings and foibles,” agrees Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer. (Unrelated: Why must the Observer have headlines like that?)
For Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club, “It’s the definition of a film meant to be admired more than loved, but Desplechin’s fierce intelligence and uncompromising sense of character come through,” while J. Hoberman at the Village Voice declares that Desplechin has “invented a form of domestic magic realism,” and uses the opportunity to deflate two of the year’s other critical darlings, “Rachel Getting Marries” and “Synecdoche, New York”: “one hopes that they haven’t sucked the critical oxygen out of the atmosphere or overdrawn all available superlatives from the dictionary.”
“Is A Christmas Tale a masterpiece?” wonders David Edelstein at New York. “Maybe. I have to play with it longer. It’s certainly Desplechin’s most accessible film, in part because its dysfunctional-family-holiday-reunion genre is so comfy and its palette so warm.” “[O]ut of the most ordinary ingredients — an ailing mother, estranged adult siblings, a good meal ruined by bad behavior — the endlessly inventive French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has made the old look fresh,” writes Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly.
[Photo: “A Christmas Tale,” IFC Films, 2008]