Every November theaters, TV schedules, and DVD racks begin to clog with mediocre films about Christmas, with their reindeer and snowmen and Scrooges and holiday spirit and so forth, until you're veritably hypnotized by spinning pinwheels of red, green, and sparkly white cliché. And every November, a smaller but rarely less hackneyed selection of films set at Christmas time join their more overt fellows. It's an ideal set-up, really. The holiday season all but demands the gathering of family and friends, whatever issues divide them the other 51 weeks of the year, and the ostensible well-wishing, nostalgia, and dim, chilly hours lend themselves to attempted joviality, huddling, drinking, and, well, drama. Plus there's the added benefit that people looking for something to watch might be even more tempted to plunk down cash for your dramedy since it's seasonal—like a tomato or something.
With 2008's A Christmas Tale (Criterion Collection), French director Arnaud Despelchin manages to have his tomato and eat it, too, so to speak. That is, the Christmas his film spends with the Vuillards finds a large house full of reunited family members, looming mortality, bitter sibling anomie, drunkenness, breakdowns, a secret love, hard choices, and any number of confessions and confrontations—all the trimmings, as it were. A stellar cast, a wily directorial eye, and a sharp, unsentimental script (by Despelchin and Emmanuel Bourdieu) not only reanimate these clichés but makes them wriggle with unpredictable new life.
Things are somewhat unsettled as the Vuillards—factory owner Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and his elegant wife Junon (Catherine Denueve, not looking 65 years old by any stretch)—welcome their grown children home to their rambling old house. Junon has been diagnosed with a disease that will kill her if she doesn't get a bone marrow transplant, though, as her doctor explains, the transplant may kill her, too. And for the first time in years, her n'er-do-well oldest son Henri (Mathieu Almaric) is joining the celebration after being "banished" by elder sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) as the result of some past bad blood; she is tolerating him now, perhaps still vulnerable from a recent breakdown suffered by her teenage son Paul (Emile Berling). Henri has brought along new girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), and baby brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) has brought along wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) and their two young boys. Junon's nephew Simon (Laurent Capelluto) shows up, as apparently he usually does.
Once everyone's under the same roof, what you expect to happen happens, more or less, though not the way you expect it to. As befitting the regal Denueve, Junon faces her predicament with poise, even a certain level of detachment, and she takes the same approach to the family members clashing around her. Henri drinks too much, insults people, and picks fights, but something about Almaric's child-like gleam—and maybe something about Consigny's controlling Elizabeth as his rival—allows him to remain appealing. Sylvia's discovery that Simon loved her and "gave" her to Ivan years ago leads her to reevaluate her relationships in a most affecting but unsensational way. Even the fistfight blows over by Christmas Eve.
Part of the wonderful unpredictability of A Christmas Tale comes from Despelchin's execution. The first few times a character starts speaking directly to the viewer, briefly explaining this or that, it's so unexpected that it takes a moment to understand that that's what's happening. A clever mix of iris shots, flashbacks, title cards, and even hallucinations help further keep things slightly off balance. Fateful letters are read verbatim directly to the camera by the writer or briefly glimpsed, their contents never divulged. Those expecting easy answers, simple resolutions, and unabashed heart-warming had better skip A Christmas Tale, but then again, on that basis, you should probably skip Christmas with your family, too.
Not necessarily Christmas-y but seasonally apropos is the new Criterion issue of Michael Ritchie's 1969 Downhill Racer. These days, Robert Redford is the saintly elder statesman of the Sundance Institute and an occasional crinkly presence behind or in front of the camera in middling films. What tends to get lost in Bob's current golden-grandpa haze is that he was always at his best as an actor when playing pricks, e.g. Downhill Racer's David Chappellet.
Redford stalks through Michael Ritchie's terse, tres '70s film as a brooding, self-absorbed young skier from Nowheresville trying to schuss his way onto the U.S. team and into the top echelon of the international ski circuit. Though Chappellet doesn't say much, his inchoate hunger and ambition radiate from Redford's glamorous glower as the character clashes with his coach (Gene Hackman) and falls for a chic European femme fatale (Camilla Sparv). Long on pulse-pounding ski footage and short on any other drama or excitement, Downhill Racer is a strange blend of sports flick and character study, and perhaps not entirely successful on either point. But it's worth seeing for Redford's chilly performance, Ritchie's elliptical direction, and its ultimate message, a coup de grace delivered in the final moments—from the top of the mountain, there's nowhere to go but down.