Mathieu Amalric did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Henri Vuillard in A Christmas Tale.
The use of many a foreign language actors in Hollywood films is a bit of a curiosity as they become generally known for work in their home country and then is typically cast as some creep in an English language film. That is a particularly strange thing as in most circumstances that is not the nature of their performances in their native tongue, and it often requires one seek out that work to properly see the range of their talent. Mathieu Amalric is one such actor that can even be seen in one of his other performances as such a creeper Dominic Greene in the bond film Quantum of Solace also from 08. A Christmas Tale offers thankfully sort of a different side to the performer here as the black sheep of the family the film focuses. The black sheep for reasons that are not made entirely clear throughout the film, however as the film opens Amalric's Henri is banished from the family by his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) after she pays off the numerous debts he has accrued, however that does not seem to be the exact reason for banishment. Now I write "sort of" a different side to Almaric as it is easy to see why he could be pigeonholed in a certain type role in terms of un-creative casting in that Almaric certainly brings an impish quality here as well. A different type of impish quality though as he carries it in a far more jovial way as though his Henri is in some way embodied by the spirit of Bacchus or of some such sort of like spirit as we catch up with Henri a few years after his banishment.
One of the first acts of Henri's in the film is walking around drunk then face planting directly into a roadway. This would seem perhaps a cry for help for most characters however that is not the nature of Henri exactly, which is so well developed through Almaric's performance. Even in the moment of wandering around there is almost this dancing spirit to it. He doesn't do a dance mind you however Almaric brings a certain energy about his actions that very much embodies this sense of enjoyment within Henri even when suffering some quite extreme physical harm at times. Almaric very much defines around the pain this since of pleasure not of masochism but rather just as part of his overwhelming behavior being this search for such zest towards life. This obviously isn't the most sane of an idea and properly Amalric finds more than a hint of madness in his cheeky little grin even after crashing into the pavement. Amalric portrays it as this bit of insanity yet he manages to project it not so much as this problematic self-destruction but rather this particularly intense and idiosyncratic way of embracing what life has to offer him. The nature of Henri seems to become all the more abundant when he is allowed to return to the family because their mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia and is need of a bone marrow transplant with her same blood type.
Henri visits with his current girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos), where he seems to prepare her for some horrible visit with his family. Of course how Amalric interacts with every member of the family helps to define not only his character, but also the family's dynamic and history as well. It is here that we begin to understand the man and Almaric's performance intentions become much more clear. We see perhaps Henri at his purest with his father where actually Almaric portrays the least joyful mania in work and speaks in their moments together with while not an earnestness in his words there is such an honest in his delivery of them and his eyes. This is contrast to the rest of the family where we get much more of the man seeming to live on this extreme edge at all times. A vicious joy of ways that Amalric expresses as Henri speaks to his siblings, particularly his sister. He makes this carefully troubling as this exuding of such joy even when delivering insulting or self-deprecating remarks to himself or even those around him. When his brother-in-law attacks him for one of these such insults, Amalric even laughs this off. There is the intensity of this that Amalric though that reveals this certain anxiety even as he presents such an overt joyousness in the act at all times. The strange juxtaposition of behavior though twists itself in the most fascinating ways between Henri and his nephew, suffering from mental problems, and his mother. In his scenes with his nephew Amalric plays them especially because he actually tones down Henri's typical manner a bit, and adjusts it in a way. He projects a certain more uncompromising warmth to the boy creating the sense of an Uncle trying to support the troubled boy in some way. In these moments Amalric creates the sense of how he would help the boy as Henri's always strangely positive attitude would help the boy as in his eyes as it seems to helps Henri through a rough life.
Of course with his mother it is where we see the painful existence that is Henri's life. Amalric is great in these moments with here as there is such rich, in many unpleasant history between the two felt in every interaction. Amalric presents on the surface the hints of just an old love, as any son should have with his mother, yet around every kindness there is such a palatable resentment in his eyes, and within his delivery. He never loses himself to obvious anger towards her, rather again reveals that joyful attitude that becomes to represent Henri's desperation. Amalric reveals that to essential be this defense mechanism for Henri to deal with both his own failures, but also the disregard so many of his family members have for him. He carefully portrays most strongly when really the feelings of sorrow or sadness should be most prevalent, leaving him in troubled yet functioning state of mind. Amalric realizes this state so well and shows how it brings both the best and the worst out of him. As that even when he does the right thing to save his mother by donating his marrow, Amalric portrays it it in front of her directly with almost a maniacal glee as though to diminish his positive act in order to in no way deliver his love, this is against when we see him with the doctors alone to which Amalric reveals a far more desperate concern allowed away from the limits of his family. Amalric naturally realizes this man who self-sabotages almost to fulfill the role that his family has set for him. He creates the sense that this has been earned in the past, but only exacerbated by his banishment. Although we never learn what caused his sister to banish him, Amalric's work gives understanding to it through this state he makes so vivid. He shows this through a man who has made so many mistakes to the point he never seems to apologize for them rather would remain in his state of "bliss", even if he can't quite succeed with that even. This is a terrific performance by Mathieu Amalric, and easily the most compelling aspect of this film, as he so well realizes the complexity of the man's relationship to his family which in turn creates such a complicated state of the mans so cheerful in his misery.