In Christmas movies, the spirit of the season inevitably trumps the personal conflicts that bedevil the characters. Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale feels like a yuletide miracle in reverse: Christmas remains in the background, no match for the wrenching problems yet stubborn togetherness of the Vuillard family.
Matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve, the de facto first lady of French cinema) discovers that she has a terminal illness and a transplant may be the only means of saving her. Two possible donors may be her alcoholic, contentious middle son Henri (Mathieu Almaric) and her troubled teenaged grandson Paul (Emile Berling). Any transplant carries the risk of "graft vs. host" disease, in one of the film's many medical metaphors for the paradoxes of family life. Can't live with them, can't live without their bone marrow.
Paul's brittle mother (Anne Consigny) and Henri have waged a bitter yet ambiguous feud for years, which they reluctantly put aside when the Vuillard family gathers for the holidays. As the wine flows, children whisper about the imaginary wolf in the basement, secret loves tumble into the open, and Henri introduces his Jewish girlfriend (the reliably enticing Emmanuelle Devos), whose casual earthiness might nudge the family out of its funk.
Desplechin employs numerous techniques to clarify and enrich the complex narrative, including text titles, monologues to the camera and a shadow-puppet prologue that explains the haunting death of the Vuillard's first-born while still a child. Superb across the board, the cast shows how the roles adjust their passionate feelings ever-so-slightly and A Christmas Tale ends on a hopeful note without building to cheap epiphanies.
Like many of France's most intellectual, cinematically literate directors, Desplechin tends to keep the audience at arm's length to his characters, challenging viewers to think about behavior and philosophy rather than carry them along on waves of emotion. Not unlike Desplechin's previous film, the similarly demanding Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale proves easier to admire but hard to love, especially compared to a warmer, similarly themed film like Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. Overall, however, Desplechin gives viewers an intricate, insightful holiday gift that rewards careful unwrapping.