Are holiday movies required to be hokey and sentimental, or is it possible to produce a genuine, no-holds-barred arthouse flick centered around the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
That seems to be the challenge French director Arnaud Desplechin takes on with “A Christmas Tale.” It covers the same ground most holiday movies cover; one could argue it displays a slavish devotion to Christmas tropes. Terminal illness: check. Family dysfunction: check. Refusal to bury the hatchet: check. Cute children, and cuter old people: check. We’ve even got a surprise girlfriend thrown into the mix.
But Desplechin takes all these familiar narrative tropes and both quirkifies and deepens them. The family dysfunction is based on a childhood tragedy; the one brother is a jerk because he was conceived to save his other brother (a la “My Sister’s Keeper) but was unable to do so, making his life a disappointing afterthought to the rest of the family, until he is finally exiled from family gatherings by his wealthy older sister, who, in exchange, keeps him out of prison by paying his debts. But now mom has a terminal illness, and he’s a donor match, so he’s invited back into the fold.
Nothing resolves neatly in “A Christmas Tale;” come to think of it, I’m not sure anything resolves at all, and a few family problems are probably made worse. This might be the movie to watch if you’re tired of Hallmark family gathering holiday movies in which grudges people have been carrying for years are resolved in an hour or two, or if you’re just in the mood for some good old-fashioned European holiday family madness. This is not the movie for you if you love “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” or anything with Dolly Parton or Reba McIntyre in it.