Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) -- banishment, and waiting for Jesus

Director: Arnaud Desplechin, 2008. (R)

Christmas. A grand time of year when bells ring, Santas smile and joy floats like snowflakes all around. That's the ideal, anyway. But sometimes Christmas brings more stress than we'd like. For some, Christmas produces dysfunction and disappointment rather tidings of comfort and joy. Desplechin's tale presents such a picture. This is no Miracle on 54th Street or A Wonderful Life.
The film follows the Vuillard family as Christmas decends on them. The introduction sets the scene: Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) the father speaks at the funeral of his son, who died at 4. The shadow of this boy looms over the family, even after two decades. Through a puppet-like sequence, Desplechin introduces the other siblings: Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the oldest child; Henri (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace), the despised middle child; and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the youngest. Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch, rules the roost for the now grown family. Elizabeth has a troubled 16 year-old son Paul (Emile Berling), recently released from an asylum, while Ivan and his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) have two little boys.

To fully establish the extent of the family dysfunction, A Christmas Tale retreats six years to a French courtroom. Henri is broke but in debt on a theater endeavour. With no apparent solution to his problem, Elizebeth offers a way out -- but only after Henri leaves the room. She will pay off his debt if he promises never to see her or visit their parents' house again. In a word, banishment. This, along with the loss of his elder brother years ago, leaves Henri isolated and lonely. His need for family has been met through alcohol. One scene shows him wandering the streets drinking and weaving. As he stands curbside he slowly pitches forward stiff as a bone, face first into the road. He is an abject failure.

Family should provide a safe haven, a place of nurture during childhood and a place of comfort when we return as adults. God intended for parents to love and care for their children, and he designed us this way. We crave affection and acceptance. When we fail to get it, like Henri, it can damage us permanently, leaving us alone, feeling like failures.

Banishment is a hellish punishment that Henri does not deserve. Indeed, hell defines the location of the banishment of all who will not willingly follow Jesus in this life. Though God would prefer all to choose to spend their lives with him (1 Tim. 2:4), he allows people to freely choose to separate themselves from his love, and in so doing they are choosing to spend their eternity alone: self-banishment.

When Junon learns she has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant, her blood type rules out most donors. She must explore those within her own family: her children. This cruel twist forces all her children and grandchildren to be tested for donor match, and brings them all together in a reunion of sorts in Junon's home. As the siblings and grandkids descend on her home, forgotten feuds, spats, and fights erupt in the midst of the festive drinking and eating.

During the reunion several famhy members seek answers to earlier questions. Henri wants to know the reasons for the conflict he finds himself in. Why did Elizebeth choose to banish him? What drove her to such a final recourse? If this were a Hollywood film, these would be in a box neatly wrapped in Christmas paper adorned with a silver bow. But it is a French film, and like life these answers are absent. They don't know the reasons for their situations. Rather, their choice is to accept the situation regardless of logic or rationale. Life is indeed like this. We want to know the whys to our questions, but rarely are we so enlightened. We must accept that God has a reason for all that he allows to happen to those he loves (Heb. 12:6). We must trust in his ultimate goodness. Ignorance, in this sense, may be bliss.

Although dark comedy suffuses much of the film, one scene offers a glimmer of light and hope. Jeffrey Overstreet discusses this in his 2008 Christianity Today article, "It Came Upon a Big Screen Clear." Ivan's two boys are playing with the Nativity scene and one asks, "When is Jesus going to come?" The other replies, "Maybe midnight." But when their father comes into the room and they tell him they are "waiting for Jesus" he refutes their childlike faith: "Jesus never existed." He represents the faithless of this age. But the boys retain a faith of sorts: "We'll wait anyway. We want to see him." This is the hope of Christmas -- the advent of the son of God born to a virgin, the babe who would be king.

In this Christmas season, will we wait for Jesus, even though many around us would tell us he doesn't exist? He came as a human baby in his first advent two thousand years ago (Lk. 2:6). He came with a mission to seek and save the lost (Lk. 19:10), doing so through his own self-sacrifice. But Advent is just the beginning. There will be a second advent, when the humble crucified and resurrected Jesus returns as the powerful Christ, the warrior-King to bring victory and restore his creation and creatures (Rev. 19:16). Will we wait for Jesus to come again? If we are his followers, then this Christmas as we sing carols of worship, we can say sincerely, "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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