“A Christmas Tale”
IFC Films
Michigan Theater

Courtesy of IFC

3.5 out of 5 stars

As Christmas approaches, happy-looking, photogenic families take over everything from commercials to the silver screen. Perhaps this is why the Vuillard family in “A Christmas Tale” is oddly endearing, despite their chain smoking and conversations on Kafka. They are dysfunctional, but lovable.

The basic plot is fairly formulaic and reminiscent of 2005’s “The Family Stone.” The Vuillard family hasn’t sat down at a table together in many years. When the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve, “Après Lui”), developes leukemia, she requires a bone marrow transplant from one of her children. Of course, there are quite a few obstacles in the family’s way and Junon really doesn’t care if her family is together in time for Christmas. The oldest child, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), is a successful playwright who must cope with perpetual depression. Her brother Paull (Emile Berling, “Dying or Feeling Better”) is a schizophrenic. Elizabeth has banished the middle brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric,“Quantum of Solace”) from the family for reasons that never seem to be fully revealed. And the youngest son, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud, “Un Homme Perdu”), is experiencing marital troubles.

No, Christmas does not mean quality family time for the Vuillards. Sister-in-law Sylvia puts it best when she says, “What a bunch of weirdos. The Vuillards pretend they’re normal, but they’re not.”

There are many places where this film could have gone wrong. After all, it’s not easy to have actors deliver monologues to the camera without it coming across as lame or pretentious. Junon’s monologue at the beginning sets a quirky but homey tone. In “A Christmas Tale,” little touches like that flow with the film and provide new dimensions to the characters and the plot. The opening silhouette animation is another creative draw that manages to blend elements of the film together.

The cast builds fluidly off each character. With a family this diverse, it must have been difficult to give these intricate relationships a level of credibility. Henri is a troublemaker, but a charming one, and Amalric is amazing at portraying the complicated Henri — even if he is a lying, manipulative, womanizing scumbag, he manages to evoke sympathy and laughter at the same time.

The movie is dark at times. Death is a major theme, as many of the family’s troubles occur against the backdrop of the oldest son, Joseph. These parts are excessively dramatic, but this doesn’t really detract much from the film. The darker moments are often juxtaposed with funny ones, and this is what saves the movie — like when Ivan’s crumbling marriage is offset by a Christmas play starring Zorro. For the most part, the high points and the low points in each of the characters’ struggles are mediated very well.

Sometimes it seems like “A Christmas Tale” makes absolutely no sense at all — that it’s just the story of a group of unrelated nutcases who have been tossed together for the holidays. It could have been another feel-good holiday movie like “Christmas with the Kranks” or “Four Christmases,” but by the end, each of the characters’ antics make perfect sense and a touch of holiday spirit raises its head without prancing reindeer. Not every family is picture perfect — the Vuillards certainly aren’t — but there’s a sort of magic to this family that, despite their problems, manages to shine through.

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