(Un Conte de Nol) A Christmas Tale (2008) is strange concept to adhere to, but Boxmas is the only holiday that requires everyone to watch a specific film annually. As the premier red-letter day with its obnoxious ubiquity it is bound to be entitled in every possible way. Some people are into the same thing for Halloween, except there is no defendable answer other than Creepshow. Holiday themed movies do make an ideal comfort consumable – LOTR: The Two Towers for Arbor Day, Eight Men Out for spring training, Halloween III for St. Patrick’s, the list doesn’t go on. My Xmas movie was Die Hard growing up, then Lethal Weapon for obvious reasons, although with time I have been unable to find a suitable replacement in the same vein since there is no way to shoehorn Dredd into any particular holiday. My family was into Going My Way or that one where George Bailey saves Christmas by committing suicide with the entire second half containing some fever dream where life is even worse without him. The heartwarming message about being comfortable with misery was too dark for me as a kid, but this 2008 feature has brought me around to that state of mind.
The first time I saw A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Nol), it was chilly and confusing for me, like meeting an entire family of people I dislike. Not a profound statement since I hate all people and hate them more when they gather in herds. Still, something about this Byzantine portrait of a ruined family drew me deeper, and I have been watching this ever since for my holiday ritual. Arnaud Desplechin films are complicated machines that betray few obvious themes, so for thick fucks like me, it takes a while to understand the point. Families are dysfunctional, as if that terms really means anything. They are like any random groups of humans thrown together, in this case by genetics and bad luck. The only way to get a more noxious assembly of sapiens is to organize them by belief system so they enforce and reaffirm each others closed minds in preparation for acts of terror or even worse – social network discussions.
ACT starts with a eulogy, ostensibly for Joseph, who dies as a young child of leukemia, but the eulogy is for the family unit in general. The father, who spends the film as mediator and is the cool head who nonetheless rarely prevails, gives this sendoff to his firstborn:
My son is dead. I looked inside myself and realized that I felt no grief. Suffering is a painted backdrop. Tears bring me no nearer to the world. My son fell from me like a leaf from a tree and Ive lost nothing. Joseph is now my founder. This loss is my foundation. Joseph has made of me his son. And I feel boundless joy. ”
The words appear cold and indifferent, by Abel, the father of the clan is anything but. I only hope if someone I care about dies, I would have the maturity to reflect this ethos instead of the traditional American stages of grief: Find someone who is at fault, and then inflicting pain on whoever else you can find. The Vuillard family has this distant acceptance of their faults and failures. Abel has seen many of his children stumble on their way to ruin. Junon (mother) is adrift from her offspring, and has no use for them. She now has leukemia, and her impending death within the year draws the family back to their home for an uncomfortable holiday. Henri is mentally ill in an unspecified way, or more likely just another asshole; he runs a theater into the ground while stealing from it, anticipating his family would bail him out. Elizabeth (eldest daughter) is a successful playwright, but is a brittle depressive who bears a grudge against Henri for his theft. She also is unable to cope with her suicidal and schizophrenic son who could not read until he was in his teens. Ivan is a DJ and into drugs in general, living in poverty with a wife who years ago slept with Henri and Simon, a cousin raised with the Vuillards since the death of his mother. I keep losing track of who is who, but after several viewings and getting to know these people, I cannot say I would want to spend a single evening with any of them. Not because they are mediocre failures (they are), or because they would be thrown out of my house (within an hour max).
It would be the way my life has mirrored theirs, in various ways. Each of them appears to be successful, intellectual, with pursuits in music, art, literature, and reaching for the trappings of civilized society. And each of them has deep wounds leading to or perhaps arising from failures and there is no way to autopsy those failings as they are achingly a part of their personalities. Simon, for example, decided to give up on the woman who became Ivan’s wife, and has been in an alcoholic funk since. One decision led to a lifetime of desperation that he has come to accept – and we have all made stupid decisions just like that at some point. Junon has borne four children, likes almost none of them, and that feeling is mutual. Like Simon’s complacency, everyone is very comfortable with this. Elizabeth has been sleeping all day in their house in her pervasive depression, prompting Abel to read from the prologue of ‘On The Genealogy of Morality’ regarding the impossibility of knowing oneself – no solutions here for what ails her.
Her son remains a basket case with a lifetime of antipsychotic medications and repeated hospitalizations ahead. Junon calls Henri her ‘little Jew’ for reasons we are left to wonder, in earshot of his new girlfriend, who wears the ninja star of that tribe. No apologies, no regrets. This is all fine. That is what bothers me the most, and what keeps me coming back to a well of pain and dissatisfaction that courses through the Vuillards, with acceptance hanging in the air from the cigarettes that every single member smokes incessantly.
It is a natural human impulse to identify and fix a problem. Lacking that, we pretend something easily fixable is a problem, like when whites are forced to regard the problems facing the black community, they look past entrenched effects of racism, poverty, and cultural collapse, then inevitably decide the media is to blame for bringing this all up. In A Christmas Tale, the family deals with their defeats with sublime acquiescence, as though marching to the guillotine with a bottle of vodka in hand. It dawned on me the healthy world view this requires. You come to terms with the deficit of justice and equality in the world entire, accept that terrible things happen randomly to whomever was in the wrong place, and ultimately the ego must take its place in a humble position underfoot. We are not soldiers of fortune, superheroes with the courage and skill-sets needed to right the wrongs and steer this lonely planet to a greater future. We are lost and confused, prejudiced and small-minded, and there is no reason we should get anything out of life. Ending up in dead end marriages, working jobs we hate, spending time with children who will more than likely despise us when they become self sufficient.
And this is fine, really. We can do little things to improve our lots, but coming to terms with our many inevitable failures is what will save us. Unless you are religious, in which case your comfort and happiness come shrink wrapped for you, you unique child of god. Fine, whatever gets you through the echoing nights. For me, it is morbid curiosity in what comes next. Simon (the cousin) is confronted by the woman he has loved from a distance when she finds out he gave her up so the weakest of the sons could have what he wanted. They talk, and smoke, and drink, and she expresses scorn for having a decision made for her. They have sex, and spend the night, and Ivan greets her at the door of her newly explored bedroom with a bemused shake of the head. The kids greet her and Simon, who has graduated to her new lover instead of depressed shithead.
And this is all fine. Morality is profoundly beneath any level of happiness, or should be. Junon will receive a bone marrow transplant from Henri, who rejoices that he finally gets to kill her. In the hospital, he peers at her through the plastic as she notes sardonically that she is rejecting him. Untrue in a medical sense, but her palpable dislike for the son who will save the life of the mother he just called ‘cunt-captain’ is what she truly feels. Why waste precious time lying to oneself, or your family? Come to terms with failure, because it is what is coming your way, and plenty of it. And that is just fine. The successes we have in life are few and minor, so make the most of them when they come.
I am not doing what I wanted with my life, and spend most days in a depressed funk. But today I mixed in a jar some potassium chlorate with sugar and let my son drop in some sulfuric acid, and the pillar of fire that erupted from the glass gave him an insane level of joy. I will keep some of that for myself.