A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale (French: Un conte de Noël) is a 2008 French comedy-drama film by Arnaud Desplechin, starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud, Emmanuelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni. It tells the story of a family with strained relationships which gathers at the parents' home for Christmas, only to learn that their mother has leukemia. It was in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

A Christmas Tale
Theatrical release poster
Directed byArnaud Desplechin
Produced byPascal Caucheteux
Written byArnaud Desplechin
Emmanuel Bourdieu
StarringCatherine Deneuve
Jean-Paul Roussillon
Mathieu Amalric
Anne Consigny
Melvil Poupaud
Emmanuelle Devos
Chiara Mastroianni
Music byGrégoire Hetzel
CinematographyEric Gautier
Edited byLaurence Briaud
Why Not Productions
Distributed byBac Films
Release date
Running time
150 minutes
Budget$6.3 million
Box office$6.3 million[1]


Junon Vuillard, married to Abel, is the iron-willed matriarch of the family. Junon held her family together through tough times, but her willpower made her children resentful. Junon remains handsome, and though her husband, who owns a small factory, is obese and elderly, he retains clarity, acceptance, tolerance, and unconditional love for his family. He and their mutual love holds a fragmented family together, albeit uneasily.

They have three children in their 30s. Eldest is Elizabeth, a successful playwright and married to the equally successful Claude. Their only child is 16-year-old Paul, mentally ill and taking powerful medication. The middle child is Henri, who drinks too much and has always fought with everyone else. He has a new girlfriend, Faunia. Ivan is their youngest, married to Sylvia with two sons, Basile and Baptiste. Henri and Ivan are friends with Simon, their cousin raised with them after his parents’ death. Simon works in Abel's plant, but is a part-time painter. He is an alcoholic, frequently in trouble for public brawling. All three men were interested in Sylvia once, but manipulated her to think that only Ivan loved her; she married and grew to love him. Junon’s other son, Joseph, is the presence around which everyone's psyches revolve: he died of leukemia when six, despite trying to save him by having another child who could be a bone marrow donor. It may be that the part of siblings' poor relationship is the mutual resentment for not saving his life.

Six years before the Christmas gathering of the film, Henri faced bankruptcy. Elizabeth paid off his debts, but demanded that he never see her again, meaning he was excluded from family gatherings. Family members speculate on the reason for this condition, including perhaps incest between them.

Just before Christmas, Junon learns she has leukemia and will soon die, unless she has a bone marrow transplant. Her family gathers at her home and immediately start bickering. Junon asks them to donate bone marrow. Elizabeth fights with Henri, who drinks heavily and hides Paul's medication. Paul fears the blood test might reveal his father is not his biological parent. Henri refuses the test, because he never loved his mother. Faunia has agreed to visit before leaving for her own family. Her honesty and gentleness soothe Henri, and she stays for two days.

On 23 December, Rosaimée visits for dinner and fireworks. She was Abel's mother's friend, although it is suggested that they were lesbian lovers. Rosaimée tells Sylvia that Simon stopped seeing Sylvia because he believed she would be happier with Ivan. Sylvia feels betrayed and manipulated. Henri has the test and discovers he can donate. He decides to do so despite disliking his mother. Simon begins drinking heavily in cafes, and the family seeks him. Sylvia discovers him and confesses that she knows he loves her. She and Simon spend several hours talking, then return to the house and make love. Paul tells Henri about his fears. Henri convinces him that he is not his father, confirmed by the test, and reassures Paul that it is not a failing to be afraid. They bond, and Paul’s mental condition improves. On Christmas Day, Abel and Elizabeth discuss Elizabeth's longstanding depression, and Abel reads her the prologue to Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality about how well we know – or don't know – ourselves. Abel suggests that Elizabeth fears death, and that has led to her caution and depression.

The film ends with Ivan discovering his wife has had sex with Simon (they make no effort to hide it, waking up together in bed and greeting her children as they come bearing tea), but the effect on him is not revealed – he seems remarkably blase, as though he has expected it. Paul stays behind with Henri, who is having a positive effect on his mental health. Henri donates his bone marrow to Junon, but she announces, seemingly before medical evidence for it, that her body will reject the transplant. Elizabeth speculates that Junon will live, but Henri is shown flipping a coin in the hospital in front of his mother and not revealing the answer.



The film explores family relationships, how some conflicts are resolved, and how relationship constantly evolve between mother and children, lovers, spouses, and siblings in the context of a Christmas family gathering. There are philosophical insights into the complexity of life, and we gain a deeper understanding of each person in the family, the dynamics of the Vuillard family, and how we deal with adversity.

Critical reception

Awards and nominations


  • Lane, Anthony (24 November 2008). "The Current Cinema: Hard Times". The New Yorker. 84 (38): 130–131. Retrieved 16 April 2009.

Top ten lists

The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2008.[2]


  1. "Box office by Country: A Christmas Tale Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2012-06-04
  2. "Metacritic: 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2 January 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2009.
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