A quirky family overcomes dysfunctional discord during the holidays when the mother is diagnosed with the same illness that took her young son's life.
Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Mathieu Amalric
What is it about the French that makes everything they touch -- from family dysfunction and alcoholism to adultery and even a bone marrow transplant -- seem like it's the height of sophisticated chic? "A Christmas Tale," by Arnaud Desplechin, is the kind of sprawling story of twisted family dynamics and constantly shifting alliances that in American hands would be reduced to maudlin melodrama or cheap farce. Desplechin dances between the two, delivering an absorbing if occasionally confounding portrait of love and loyalty at their messiest.
Her highness Catherine Deneuve reigns supreme as Junon, the matriarch of the Vuillard family, whose three adult siblings (played by Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny and Melvil Poupaud) have grown up in the shadow of a brother who died of leukemia as a child. When Junon is diagnosed with the same disease, each of her kids is tested for bone marrow compatibility. As fate would have it, the best candidate is Henri (Amalric), who has been estranged from the family for years.
What to do? Well, drink and smoke, of course! In addition to an often forced tone of insouciance, "A Christmas Tale" suffers from a surfeit of precious theatrical flourishes, including cut-out silhouettes, a peephole visual effect reminiscent of silent films and the actors occasionally turning to the camera to address it directly. But even though it's pretentious and overlong, "A Christmas Tale" is still maddeningly engaging, thanks in large part to its attractive and gifted cast (which includes Deneuve's real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni). Despite Desplechin's reluctance to get out of his own way, the Vuillards exert an irresistible gravitational pull as they celebrate, if not a merry Christmas, at least a very French one.
-- Ann Hornaday
Contains profanity, sexuality and graphic medical procedures.