Since 1996's My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument, a three-hour dissection of modern relationships that's every bit as exhaustive as its title, restlessness and discord have been the primary modes of Arnaud Desplechin's directorial career. Even a departure like his underrated 2000 period piece Esther Kahn seemed perversely idiosyncratic and confrontational, what with its deliberately blank lead performance by Summer Phoenix and its plain, unburnished images of Victorian England. So leave it to the ornery Desplechin to take the stuffing out of the holiday movie with A Christmas Tale, which greets the season with the deep family dysfunction that most films are anxious to salve in time for Midnight Mass. It's the definition of a film meant to be admired more than loved, but Desplechin's fierce intelligence and uncompromising sense of character come through, as does some of the sharp wit and stylistic flourishes left over from his last film, 2004's Kings And Queen.
Desplechin builds on what seems like an invitation to gross sentimentality: Family matriarch Catherine Deneuve has been diagnosed with leukemia, and she's looking for a compatible donor to get the bone-marrow transplant she needs to survive. But her three grown children are hard to get along with, and their narcissism doesn't well serve this season of giving. Deneuve's daughter Anne Consigny, a scolding playwright with a husband (Hippolyte Girardot) and a depressed son (Emile Berling), hasn't spoken to her black-sheep brother Mathieu Amalric in five years. The other sibling, Melvil Poupaud, tries to play friendly intermediary, which proves difficult. When the entire family, grandkids included, returns home for a long Christmas weekend, the traditional niceties quickly dissolve into drunken feuding.
There isn't a single stable creature among Desplechin's sprawling cast of characters, but he extends great affection to them, much like a member of a bickering, cacophonous household might jump to his family's defense if anyone impugned it. Deneuve's quest for a donor provides the film with a neat metaphor for how families are bonded by blood, or whether they can reject each other like a host body reacting to an incompatible source. Though it looks as beautiful as the happiest holiday, A Christmas Tale doesn't use the rituals of the season to gloss over the longstanding disputes of people with very real problems. And for that reason alone, it deserves respect.