A Christmas Tale ★★★★

With much more bravado, and much more venom, than the usual family drama, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale finds its French auteur mining familiar territory, with uncommonly successful results. Unlike most films of its genre, A Christmas Tale chooses to set its family’s baggage in plain sight from the outset. The opening moments of the film recount the death of a child, offer a cancer diagnosis and a frantic hunt for a bone marrow donor, chronicle how a son came to be disowned by his family due to a sister’s manipulations, and startle with a suicide attempt. By frontloading the dramatic meat of the story, though, the film becomes less about shocking revelations or plot twists than the sometimes comic, sometimes serious dynamics of a family under extreme strain.

There’s no shortage of strain here, to be sure. Not since Margot at the Wedding have interfamilial interactions in a movie been so barbed. Idiosyncrasies abound in this large family of intellectuals, and each of them is pounced upon without the slightest hint of remorse. Characters analyze each other incessantly, making the cancer that afflicts the clan’s matriarch seem more like a metaphorical descriptor of the malignant tensions that fester all too near the surface throughout. Some of the scariest of these threats never manifest themselves in the drama, but the way that they bubble under effectively demonstrates how stressful family life can be, even when things are ostensibly fine. The juicy setup and livewire cast makes for compulsive viewing, recalling a good television program, but it plays far faster and with more style than anything that’s been broadcast on TV, thanks to Desplechin’s superb direction.

A Christmas Tale sees Desplechin unleashing his whole bag of tricks, from fisheye lenses to freeze frames, from blaring background music to warm, slow dissolves, from split screens to characters that address the audience directly. So much aggressive style doesn’t detract from the drama, so much as it lends it a knowing, filmic quality that makes the misanthropy on display more tolerable. Beyond that, though, it makes for an impressive display of filmmaking prowess. Perhaps one could argue that every formal choice is not perfectly judged (the director pointlessly chops up space during the father's funeral oration, for example), but taken as a whole, the resulting film is consistent in tone and consistently inspired, especially compared with the jarring jump cuts and histrionics of Desplechin’s similar Kings & Queen.

A Christmas Tale succeeds both as an examination of peculiar family dynamics and a showcase for its cast. Even Mathieu Amalric, who disrupted the tone every time he appeared in Kings & Queen, integrates seamlessly into the ensemble this time, with a typically off-kilter characterization. The film tries to say so much, with so many characters, that it’s amazing that as much of it works as well as it does. Admittedly, in its second half, there are passages where the film seems both a tad too all-reaching in its scope and a bit too perfectly incisive in its characters’ dissections of their own relationships, but that moment of doubt passes quickly. The overall impression is of a movie that’s generous to a fault. Yes, it’s perhaps too blunt in its delivery, too acutely aware of its own messiness, and too visually flamboyant to feel like a truly great movie, but it’s not far off from being one. It details the complicated, conflicted personalities of a group of individuals with a frankness and callousness rarely seen. Perhaps the most touching, shocking, wrong, and right scene in A Chirstmas Tale involves the family gathering together to calculate their mother’s lifespan on a blackboard. It’s a gesture that’s at once loving and appalling. It sums up the film perfectly.