More Than “A Christmas Tale”

December 29, 2008

Sometimes, rarely actually, a movie stuns me. Leaves me in awe. Not fully grasping what I’ve just seen, I want to watch it again and again.

That’s how I feel twenty-four hours after watching “A Christmas Tale.” The French film examines the complexities of a dysfunctional, estranged family reunited for the holiday. Typically that subject wouldn’t interest me. But there’s so much more to it in this film.

I’ve never seen a more unsentimental and poignant portrayal of love, even though the surface plot boils with resentment and tragedy and crises. And a broader theme, articulated in a New York Times review, rivets me: “the futility of our desire for self-knowledge and our alienation from our own experience.” In other words, we don’t have a clue as to who we really are despite the illusions we sell ourselves.

This theme comes alive when the family patriarch explains our lack of self-understanding by reading aloud to his distraught daughter the opening two paragraphs of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals.” Now I can’t stop reading them and wondering who in the hell is that stranger in the mirror.

The Times review had persuaded me to see the film. While Suzame and I waited at the Hollywood Theatre for the movie to begin, I told her that 151 minutes of subtitles might put me to sleep. Far into the story I hoped it wouldn’t end.

It hasn’t. Not in my head, where the characters live on. Joining them are disquieting flashes from my life. I can’t look away.