Despite its warm, fuzzy title, “A Christmas Tale” is about as far removed from yuletide cheer as a drunken department store Santa.
Despite its warm, fuzzy title, “A Christmas Tale” is about as far removed from yuletide cheer as a drunken department store Santa.It’s family dysfunction on steroids, in your face and unapologetic. It’s also great fun for anyone who’s ever had to suffer the indignities of family gatherings during the holidays.I know what you’re thinking: another punch-pulling sapfest like “The Family Stone” and its ilk. But I’m thrilled to say it’s not. If anything, it sways to the other end of the spectrum, and does it with cynicism and bile to spare.In other words, it’s French. But don’t let that hold you back from experiencing one of the most gleefully acerbic movies of the year, as director Arnaud Desplechin plumbs the depths of one of life’s greatest mysteries: how people with the same basic DNA can be so cruel to one another.The Vuillards of Roubaix are well versed in the phenomenon, as Desplechin underscores in a 20-minute prologue that provides an overview of the family’s three decades of triumphs, tragedies and bitter sibling rivalries leading up to the weekend of Christmas 2006.It will be the first time the entire Vuillard clan has been under the same roof since oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a successful playwright, legally banished her feckless brother, Henri (“Quantum of Solace’s” Mathieu Amalric), from the family six years earlier.He’s been granted clemency mainly because it might be the last Christmas the family’s sturdy matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve looking as lovely as ever), will spend on Earth. But also because Henri might be a suitable donor for the bone marrow transplant his mother desperately needs to beat the leukemia that threatens to kill her within weeks.Joining the warring siblings on this less-than-happy occasion is their father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), his wife, Sylvia (Deneuve’s daughter Chiara Mastroianni), their two extremely odd children (Thomas and Clement Obled); orphaned cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto); Elizabeth’s suicidal teenage son, Paul (Emile Berling); and Henri’s Jewish girlfriend, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos).Desplechin, who co-wrote the script with Emmaunel Bourdieu, does an excellent job of establishing each character and providing them equal weight in a story that shrewdly opens the closet on a surreptitious family rife with secrets, indiscretions and narcissism.Yet Desplechin allows a subtle sweetness to seep in when you least expect it. Same with the pitch-black humor, which effectively tempers the sorrow and the bitterness that seems to plague the family’s every move.Against your better judgment, you wind up really liking these people, even when their behavior goes beyond reprehensible. What you like even better is Desplechin’s refusal to succumb to a happy ending that would have been both phony and overreaching.That’s because “A Christmas Tale” at its (black) heart is a simple, unassuming snapshot of a family that was in crisis long before we intruded into its messy lives and will remain one long after we’ve returned to our own dysfunctional houses.Sure it’s heartbreaking and sad, but it’s also quite funny and knowing, tapping into everyone’s dream of having the perfect family, while also reminding us of the harsh realities that stand in way of such a momentous thing ever happening. Nor would you ever want it to happen, because as “A Christmas Tale” so entertainingly reminds, a happy family is a boring family, while a volatile one is almost always a blast.