At the New York Film Festival press conference for his wily, wonderfully weird new film 'Wild Grass,' French director Alain Renais, creator of such mind-bending classics as 'Night and Fog' and 'Last Year at Marienbad,' was asked by a fellow journalist what it felt like to still be cutting edge, still pushing the boundaries of cinema.
"I think you should ask Arnaud Desplechin that question," was Renais' retort. "Because he's the one that's really doing it.
He's got a point. And now Desplechin is making his High-Def debut with the glorious Criterion presentation of 'A Christmas Tale,' a gorgeous little film that screened at the previous year's New York Film Festival.
'A Christmas Tale's' story is as well worn and dangerously cliché as any number of Hollywood holiday confections: a dysfunctional middle class family reunites in the family home. The matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) is dying, and is depending on a member of the family (who matches her genetically) to step up and save her life. Tensions are running high, as there are a number of skeletons in this family's closet. A daughter doesn't speak to a son (Mathieu Amalric, more villainous and gooey than he was in James Bond) for reasons that are never fully illuminated. There is unrequited love, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings. As far as story goes, this is pretty much it.
But "story" isn't what makes 'Christmas Tale' such a charming confection. No, Desplechin takes a novelistic approach. Stories converge and break apart, without much explanation. There's an emphasis, primarily, on the characters. There are lovely little stylistic touches (when was the last time you saw an "iris in" in a movie since 'The Departed?'), and story points which first seem befuddling but have a kind of oddball charm.
The movie is a deeply effective one, as warm as a giant cup of hot chocolate. But unlike hot chocolate, this won't overdose you with its inherent sweetness. Some people have complained that it's a little too grim, but I didn't feel that at all. It's a movie that's as alive and messy and sincere as the family in 'A Christmas Tale,' and totally, completely lovable.
While the story of 'A Christmas Tale' sounds like typical holiday fodder, it's the way in which the tale is told that makes it such a wonderful experience. Desplechin doesn't pile on the stylistic flourishes, he just peppers a very humane story with nice touches. He lets the character dictate the story instead of the other way around.
'Christmas Tale' is a future holiday classic for film lovers. It's gorgeous, touching, well acted, and superbly directed. I'm with Alain Renais: Arnaud Desplechin is the future of cutting edge filmmaking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This 50GB dual layered disc is Region "A" locked. I keep forgetting to talk about how lovely the Criterion menu screens are, so I'd like to do that here: the Criterion menu screens on their Blu-ray releases are really very lovely.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (the original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 is preserved here) is absolutely wonderful and totally up to the unbelievably high standards that are synonymous with the word "Criterion."
To quote from the booklet that comes with the Blu-ray: "Supervised and approved by director Arnaud Desplechin, this new high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm inter-positive. Dirt, debris, and scratches were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
Again, that paragraph makes you think that the image was messed with to the point of oblivion, particularly with those two words "noise reduction" (eep!) but, thankfully, that just isn't the case. The image looks spectacular but more than that, it looks natural. Detail is heightened (the wrinkles in the old man's skin are deep and vivid), skin tones look amazing, and the film's warm autumnal color palette, occasionally mixed with some steely blues and grays, stuns.
There aren't any buggy technical issues or evidence of excessive grain. There's a fine layer of grain that adds to the film's deep, lushly cinematic look and doesn't even register enough to complain about it. This is another stellar transfer from the fine folks at Criterion. It's like being in the house with this crazy family.
This disc sports a single audio option, a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Thankfully, with a track this good, one is all you need.
Again, quoting from the booklet: "The audio for this release was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD." This isn't a track that's going to give your surround setup a vigorous workout. While there is a fine layer of ambience, especially when the house is full of family members, this is a mostly dialogue heavy track. That's fine - the dialogue is well reproduced and always clear. Additionally, there are no audio glitches - pops, hiss, and scratches aren't here.
It's a track where subtlety outshines bombast. Is it going to blow out your surround sound system up? Nope. Is it delicate and wonderful, just like the film? Yes, yes it is.
There are English subtitles because, you know, it's in French.
Criterion has put together a great collection of extras for their release of 'A Christmas Tale.' The exact same special features can be found on the DVD counterpart. Originally, 'Christmas Tale' was going to only be on DVD, but after a number of delays, Criterion stepped up to the plate and delivered the Blu-ray. And we're all the better for it.
Additionally, there's an essay in the booklet called "The Inescapable Family" by Phillip Lopate. It's well worth a read.
'A Christmas Tale' is a miniature-sized masterpiece. A potentially formulaic take on familial get-togethers, it transcends its trappings to become something wholly unique - alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming. Criterion's release of this future holiday classic is truly superb - exemplary A/V and a fine collection of special features, including a stellar supplemental documentary about the real life scenario that inspired the narrative film. For a film this small, everything about it is just grand. Highly Recommended.