Arnaud Descheplin's A Christmas Tale is a fitfully charged film that transcends the usual hokey fare that typifies holiday cinema.
The film (not rated) depicts the first time in six years that three generations of the Vuillard family have gathered together for Christmas. Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the family's matriarch, has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and the illness has forced two of her children, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) and Henri (Mathieu Amalric), to put aside their differences for Christmas. There is a chance that one of Junon's children, or grandchildren, may be able to save her with a bone-marrow transplant.
Descheplin has created vivid characters that are portrayed with skill by his cast. But he refrains from excessively tinkering with them, an effort that brings the film to many frustrating yet appealing places. There are Christmas songs, midnight masses, and tears shed, but moments in the film seem less dictated by the rote necessities of a holiday drama than the strange interactions around a house populated by familiar but cantankerous visitors.
The Vuillards attract and repulse each other with personalities that come equipped with years of baggage, but the audience is not always privy to how or why these relationships exist. Descheplin is similarly unconcerned with the moral judgments (or the run time, which is a trying 150 minutes) of his film. Instead he uses actions and plot arcs to add to the drama instead of elucidate it.
Junon seems to take no pains about asking her children-and grandchildren-to partake in an experiment that could endanger their lives. Henri manages to quickly waste the goodwill of offering up his marrow, while Elizabeth cannot eclipse her bitterness.
The storyline is not concluded in any serious way by the time the credits roll, but the result is something that bears striking similarities to the one thing that most holiday fare fails to capture-a real family gathering.