The Vuillards are getting together for the holidays, which, as per the holiday film genre, creates a terrible nexus of dysfunction, constructed family member by family member, like a malignant Voltron that fights only itself. Presiding over the family of A Christmas Tale is Catherine Deneuve as the impassive, controlling matron suffering a fatal disease, expecting everyone down to her schizophrenic grandchild to compete for the honor of undergoing a painful, dangerous transplant procedure that may give her a few more years of life. Also ready to oblige are her nephew and her three children, one of whom (Mathieu Amalric, French director Arnaud Desplechin's usual surrogate ne'er-do-well in his narratives, and the latest Bond villain over here) she despises and whom another sibling has banished from the family for the past five years.
All arrive with significant others, and with other complications lying in wait, but Desplechin, in his acknowledged tribute to the traditionally American genre, stays true to his declared intent to avoid the false construction of the holiday film in which everything mounts to a big, powder-keg finish. Most of the cards are laid out on—no, thrown at—the table right off. So the film is free to dive deeper down—into the way siblings ricochet off one another in combination, into the way wounds scab over and are torn open again as a matter of habit, and into the nuances of schizophrenia and terrifying illness, things a normal Christmas drama might treat more as dramatic punch lines. And by leavening out the measure of these last two elements, it manages to make them not just more palpably real but sidesteps the grim heaviness one would expect (and dread).
This cool, Gallic assessment of life's travails does come at a cost, as the film can be rather distancing, especially earlier on. Desplechin's last film, Kings and Queen, introduced a capricious, sometimes playfully jarring style to what had been a dry intellectualism. But he nearly throws you off the seesaw on this one, laying too heavily into the disorientation. The effect is sometimes of the French New Wave clumsily filtered down into the sort of stately, upper-class films oft denoted by the presence of the venerable Deneuve (who, when she dies, will take French cinema with her). But the affectations drop away and things slowly cohere, just as if you were a guest in this comically rancorous household just trying to follow the ins and outs. Desplechin holds us at arm's length and denies us the comfortable closure of the Hollywood model but, in giving us lives and stories that feel like they keep going after we have left the theater, delivers a rarer sort of satisfaction.
opens Friday at Cinema 21.