Arnaud Desplechin’s movies are impossible to predict. They careen wildly around people’s lives, pulling out the humor and the cruelty in equal measures. His “How I Got Into an Argument… (My Sex Life)” and “Kings and Queen” are among the most inventive European movies of the ’90s and the ’00s, respectively.
His new film is in that vein. But it actually has a concept close to a certain Hollywood sub-genre: the family holiday gathering movie, along the lines of “Dan in Real Life” or “Home for the Holidays.” There aren’t too many warm ‘n’ fuzzies in this one, however.
The dysfunctional Vuillard family is planning a Christmas gathering, but this year is fraught with special difficulties. The aging mother and father (Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Roussillon) are facing a challenge: her diagnosis of blood cancer.
She needs a marrow transplant, and two members of the extended family are compatible. But it can’t be that easy.
On top of that, their screw-up son Henri (Mathieu Amalric) has been banished from the sight of his older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), because she’s tired of his obnoxious ways. Still, he plans to show up this year, with a new girlfriend (Emmanuelle Devos).
There’s drama with younger brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), too. His wife (Chiara Mastroianni, actually Deneuve’s real-life daughter) begins to realize that the love of her life is actually Ivan’s cousin (Laurent Capelluto), and that some terrible mistake has lasted all these years.
Add to this Elizabeth’s teenage son, who is showing signs of mental imbalance, and the stage is set for a volatile weekend.
Desplechin plays this neither as straight drama nor as black comedy, instead finding some tricky place in the middle. He’s got his hands full, as the characters don’t conform to the usual measures of likability.
Good cast, though. Mathieu Amalric, who starred in those previously mentioned Desplechin films (and is the new James Bond villain in “Quantum of Solace”), creates such a truly irritating presence that when another character finally hauls off and punches him, you feel immense relief.
Deneuve and Roussillon create an amusing portrait of a longtime marriage. He’s funny casting — stooped and portly, he doesn’t look like the kind of man who would have landed the blond goddess that is Catherine Deneuve. But it works.
I will confess that “A Christmas Tale” didn’t ignite for me as Desplechin’s other films have. But it unfolds wonderfully, its crazy musical selections call to mind Wes Anderson’s films, and its observations are often cutting. That’s plenty.