Though it often seems the nadir of schmaltz and sentimentality, the Hollywood Christmas movie has always been a bit bipolar. From "A Christmas Story" to "Gremlins," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" to (undoubtedly) the forthcoming "Four Christmases," the subgenre requires a course of dysfunction and chaos before the dessert of earnest holiday cheer is served. Mom and Dad's best-laid plans go awry, Santa Claus gets trapped in the chimney and asphyxiates, and Arnold and Sinbad vie for the last available Turbo Man action figure -- but in the end, families are reconciled and the true, noncommercial meaning of Christmas is reified.
In this way, Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" is very much of a piece with this largely American subgenre, though its Gallic accent is unmistakable. Desplechin's film begins with a funeral and ends with major oncological surgery, but its large down payments of nastiness are put toward well-earned, heartwarming reconciliations.
Mercurial, multifarious, and burgeoning with detail, "A Christmas Tale" builds upon the manic catharses of Desplechin's last feature, "Kings and Queen," to create a holiday movie in extremis, in which death, disease, and mental illness cozily share the table with music, religious pageantry, and romantic and familial love. Assembling a veritable who's who of French cinematic royalty (Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni), contemporary French-movie stalwarts (Hippolyte Girardot, Melvil Poupaud, Anne Consigny), and Desplechin's repertory players (Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Jean-Paul Roussillon), the film creates an expansive portrait of the Vuillard family, its divergent mythologies, its power struggles, and its histories of mental and physical illness.
At the center of this mosaic, Amalric once again plays a dissolute, yet charismatic sociopath, and his war with older sister Elizabeth (played by a brittle and distant Consigny) forms the film's primary family feud. But parallel to this conflict are many competing squabbles, regrets, and predicaments, not least of which is the effort of the matriarch Junon (Deneuve) to find a suitable match in her immediate family for a bone marrow transplant.
Erudite and intricately constructed, "A Christmas Tale" is precisely the type of film that critics like to call "novelistic," and indeed it explicitly draws on the world of literature, directly quoting Nietzsche, Seamus Heaney, and Emerson, among others. (The film also credits Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet's "La Greffe," a book on genetic disease and the psychological effects of bone marrow transplants, as inspiration.) But it's also wildly eclectic in that most cinematic of ways, touching upon medicine and mathematics, decorative arts and dye-making, and incessantly citing influences from the worlds of music (Mendelssohn, Mingus, Cecil Taylor, hip-hop, Indian ragas) and other movies ("Funny Face," "The Ten Commandments," Angela Bassett). In this latter regard, the film's most obvious and oft-cited connection is to Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," with which Desplechin's film shares a penchant for puppet theater, baroque intra-family quarreling, and the Christian and Pagan elations of Christmastime.
And while, like all modern holiday fare (and not a few Bergman films), "A Christmas Tale" administers its doses of brutal emotional honesty and manic euphoria in equal measure, it remains unmistakably, if not simultaneously, a Desplechin film. Explicitly quoting his 2007 autobiographical documentary, "L'Aimee," and working again with frequent co-writer Emmanuel Bourdieu (son of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu), Desplechin interleaves his narrative threads with the same ingenuity and deftness he has shown since his first film, the remarkably similar "La Vie des morts." The result is a massively overstuffed stocking of joy and bitterness, but one that more than meets the holiday movie genre's prerequisites for purification. Like the collective blowouts that Henri's return unleashes on the Vuillard family, it's always part threnody, part temper tantrum, and part primal-scream therapy.