Sporting a deceptively bland title, A Christmas Tale places the viewer inside a tempest of neurosis and dysfunction that doesn't relent for a whirlwind two and a half hours. You'll find no gift-wrapped resolutions here; the film's restless camerawork, non-stop verbal barrage, and numerous story turns amount to one of the most exhausting Christmas films ever made. Fortunately for us, Despelchin balances this assault with several creative stylistic devices (hooray for puppets!), giving the film a holiday sheen that even occasionally threatens to push us into the realm of myth.
After a series of character introductions that familiarize us with the Vuillard family history, we learn that the theme of this gathering is literally that of blood relations: matriarch Junon is diagnosed with a form of leukemia that necessitates a bone marrow transplant. Since Junon's disease requires a compatible donor, each family member is tested just prior to a long Christmas weekend that puts three generations of Vuillards under the same roof. Thus, all of the long-standing hang ups, resentments, crushes and secrets -- as well as the vital test results -- are brought out in the midst of the claustrophobic household setting.
Although some have accused his previous work of lacking focus, Desplechin appears to have scored a breakthrough working within the typically trite "home for the holidays" genre. With its central sibling triumvirate and storybook framing, A Christmas Tale may invite some comparisons to Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums; the film's tone, however is much closer to the recent serio-comedies of (Anderson's sometimes co-writer) Noah Baumbach.
Both Baumbach and Desplechin employ a distinctive style of dialogue that basically amounts to characters spewing whatever cruel or vitriolic thought comes to mind. Although unrealistic, perhaps, this device helps portray the way in which family forces us to confront our deepest insecurities, simply by virtue of being surrounded by people who remind us most of ourselves. And despite the familial unrest, Desplechin's fantastical touches help lend A Christmas Tale a feeling of nostalgia and warmth that helps confirm its place in the holiday movie canon.