x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale)

Festival film Fate, control and destiny are central themes, in particular how lives bonded by blood intermingle to create the uncontrollable beast, known as a family.

French with English subtitles This film begins with a funeral: Joseph, age six, has died of Burkitt's lymphoma. His only chance for survival was a bone-marrow transplant, but neither his parents, Junon and her husband Abel, nor his elder sister, Elizabeth, were suitable. When they found out about the disease Junon and Abel had another child, Henri, hoping to make a match that would save their other son. They failed. Eventually the couple have another son, Ivan, and the family carry on with their lives in Joseph's shadow. Many years later, Junon is diagnosed with the same disease which killed her son. Abel gathers the family together to spend Christmas at their home in northern France in the hope of finding a bone-marrow donor to save his wife. It is a difficult task: a few years earlier Elizabeth, now a mother, playwright and full-time melancholy soul, paid off the wayward and oft-drunk Henri's bad debts on the condition that she never see him again. We never learn the reason for this "banishment". All we know is that the rest of the family did not intervene. As they all assemble the scene is set for "a Christmas tale" with families, inheritance and bad blood at its heart. This film could easily have become overburdened with emotion and, at nearly two and a half hours, it risked becoming simply exhausting. But Arnaud Desplechin keeps the tone light, avoiding attempts to wring every last drop of emotion from this strange and at times claustrophobic situation. There is a lot of smoking, drinking, talking and listening to music, as well as some wonderful, tender and funny moments between various characters. Fate, control and destiny are central themes, in particular how lives bonded by blood intermingle to create the uncontrollable beast, known as a family. In one scene, the family are sat in front of a blackboard scrawled with Abel's calculations for his wife's chances of survival if she has the transplant or not. Elizabeth's husband, calm and rational, interjects: you cannot be 10 per cent dead; death is absolute; and these workings must take that into account. In a moment, weeks and weeks of ponderings are junked by a new perspective, a new frame of reference, highlighting how no matter how much you try to control things, some things are, for whatever reason, beyond your control. Catherine Deneuve's performance as Junon is excellent, maintaining for the most part humour, dignity and grace and, at times, almost revelling in being the centre of attention due to her disease. Her difficult relationship with Henri, the child conceived in the hope of saving his brother Joseph so many years ago, is nuanced and moving. It turns out only Henri and Elizabeth's troubled teenage son Paul match as donors. Both struggle over their role in an operation that could potentially kill the host. In the end Henri decides to be the donor in a process that will, we learn, create new marrow for his mother ? "not you, not her ? a chimera". It is like the reproductive process in reverse, performed in a the sterile surroundings of a hospital unit. When Henri wakes up from the operation and goes to see, through a clear plastic curtain, his mother being infused with his marrow it is one of the strangest and moving moments you are likely to see all year.

Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) will be screened on Oct 14 at 6pm at Cinestar Marina Mall 4, Screen 5, as part of the Middle East International Film Festival.