A woman in her 50s or 60s is diagnosed with cancer. She is of a rare blood type, but if she gets a bone marrow transplant (which almost certainly would have to be from a close relative) she has a decent chance of survival. It’s still dangerous, and if she contracts graft versus host disease she could die even quicker than the cancer would kill her, but without it she won’t survive.
She is a classy, strong type, with a bit of a wicked edge to her. Her husband is a chubby (she would have far greater conventional dating market value; she’s Catherine Deneuve by the way), mellow, successful businessman who has learned to take everything in stride. They had already absorbed a major blow when their six year old son died of cancer. They have three other children, two boys and one girl, now adults.
The whole family gathers together for several days at Christmas—the parents, the three kids, one or more cousins, and various spouses, significant others, and children of the above, about 12-15 people all together. There they renew relationships, continue feuds, talk, fight, get emotional, etc., as well as get tested to see who might be a compatible bone marrow donor for the matriarch.
(I like the father best. He’s the one person in the movie I’d like to be friends with. He has a certain wisdom and quiet amiability to him that I appreciate.)
A Christmas Tale is described as part comedy, part drama, or maybe a black comedy, but as is pretty common in such cases, I experienced it as at least 95% drama. There are a few Wes Anderson-style quirky moments and exaggerations, but not very much. It’s a serious movie.
It’s also a very long movie—two and a half hours. For me it was not an easy movie to get into, but for whatever reason I was more disciplined than usual and feel like I stuck with it quite well. I was paying pretty close attention for the full two and a half hours. But it was one of those cases where I wasn’t so much doing that because it was interesting, but because I wanted to give it a fair chance to become interesting.
In the end, I had some trouble deciding just what to make of this. After considerable thought, here’s what I came up with:
I think there’s a certain degree of realism to this film that most films don’t have. In the vast majority of movies, the characters do and say what they need to do and say to move the story along and to show what types they fall into. It all makes sense at some level.
For instance, this person makes a cutting remark to that person as a signal to the audience that he’s a jerk, or that they have a certain kind of relationship where he says things to get under her skin. And that’s something you need to know to really understand these characters, the story, and whatever message the movie is intended to convey.
So it’s kind of shorthand communication of what the characters are about, and how they mesh with each other. Some of that communication might not be immediately decipherable, by the way, but it generally is eventually, with the benefit of hindsight after seeing the rest of the movie.
On the other hand there are films—almost always foreign or independent films—where, to me at least, the characters do and say a certain amount of nonsensical stuff, like the filmmaker is just trying to be obscure for its own sake. One extreme case that comes to mind is The Man Who Fell to Earth, where I was at a loss to give any plausible explanation for a great deal of what happens in that movie.
My sense of this film is that it fits neither of these categories. It’s almost like instead of showing you the tiny snippets of these people’s interactions that reveal the most, it shows you random snippets that may or may not be revealing. Some of these snippets seemingly don’t tell you much—not in the shorthand way we’re used to in movies—yet few if any are bizarre or inexplicable. That is to say, there’s not much that a character does or says that struck me as being inconsistent with who we were led to believe they are, or inconsistent with what common sense indicates a person in general would do or say in that situation, but at the same time some of it doesn’t predictably flow from what we know about the character or fit neatly in some picture the film is gradually drawing of that person.
So it’s more like real life: You see what you happen to see, not some carefully selected subset that tells you the most.
Not that it’s all completely random; I don’t want to overstate that. You can certainly pick out various facts about these people and their relationships and interpret much of what is shown to the purpose of conveying those facts. (This person is repressed, this person is in denial, this person resents this person for slights going all the way back to childhood, this person has never fully recovered from this trauma, etc.) But there’s also a lot—I think—that doesn’t have a “purpose” in quite that direct and obvious a sense.
The length of the movie didn’t particularly wear on me the way it normally might, but nor did it help a great deal in getting to understand these characters. It’s more like a normal length movie of this style might have told me 3% of what I would need to know in order to feel I understand these folks and can comfortably pigeonhole them, and because this movie had all this extra time to work with it told me 5% of what I would need to know.
So every little bit helps, but I’m still left with only a very limited feel for these people and what makes them tick.
But I just feel like psychologically it’s all a little more complex than you’ll normally see in a movie.
Example: The mother more than once makes disparaging remarks to one of her kids, that he’s the one she liked the least and such.
In some movies, a character who said things like that would be unambiguously kidding around and everyone in the film would get the joke. (For a TV example, imagine Roseanne Connor speaking this way to Becky.)
In some movies, these would be shocking moments, moments when a mother is expressing almost unthinkable emotions, intended to show just how bitter and damaged a human being she is, and how dysfunctional their relationship is.
In some movies, the character would be serious, but the moment itself wouldn’t be serious for the audience, but instead would be a black comedy moment of humor. So not stunning and disturbing in a dramatic way that a mother would say such things to her child, but funny precisely because it is so incongruous with the mother-child relationship and shows in a humorous way that the mother is nuts.
It’s possible this movie intends it in the third way—so we’re supposed to laugh when she says such things—but I’m not so sure.
She says it with just enough of a gleam in her eye to hint that it’s Roseanne-style humor, but leaves it ambiguous enough that the son or we the audience have to wonder to what degree it’s serious.
So it’s complex. It’s not, “OK, she hates him.” It’s not, “OK, they have the kind of fun relationship where they give each other the business.” It’s not, “OK, that’s totally from left field and it makes absolutely no sense why she just said that.” It’s more like it’s showing us more complex emotions, and showing us some tiny fraction of a relationship that can’t be simplistically summarized.
A Christmas Tale is an accumulation of such small clues into realistically complex people and relationships, that all together still don’t add up to anything close to a clear picture. The journey moves slowly, and mostly doesn’t reach a destination. Along the way the journey is neither particularly interesting or entertaining, nor painfully dull or frustratingly confusing.
At a certain level I respect that the movie lets its characters be so full and so psychologically complex that even paying attention the whole way I didn’t feel like I knew them all that well in the end, but on the other hand I’m undecided if I took away enough from this film to justify devoting two and a half hours to it.