A fractious family of arbitrarily colorful characters, home for the holidays and acting nutty, is a movie notion as traditional as a regifted fruitcake, and often enough as inedible. Yet out of the most ordinary ingredients — an ailing mother, estranged adult siblings, a good meal ruined by bad behavior — the endlessly inventive French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has made the old look fresh in A Christmas Tale, his glorious, compacted Russian novel of a movie. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Junon, the matriarch of this sharply drawn clan, is played with crafty authority by Catherine Deneuve. And it’s a plus that Junon’s three grown children are elegantly fleshed out by leading French stars Anne Consigny (as Elizabeth, the bitter eldest), protean Mathieu Amalric (as Henri, the black sheep), and Melvil Poupaud (as Ivan, the conciliatory youngest). The reunion is also Desplechin’s irresistible Kings and Queen lead Emmanuelle Devos, who nearly steals the show as Henri’s bemused girlfriend, and by Deneuve’s own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, who neatly holds her own as a less-than-favorite daughter-in-law.
Junon has been diagnosed with leukemia, and the search for a compatible blood donor for a risky medical procedure takes up a fair amount of discussion in Desplechin’s uncompromisingly bright, intellectually inquisitive script. But that talk — as well as snatches of literature and journals read aloud, dreams recounted, memories revisited, and an amateur theatrical production staged by Junon’s little grandsons — is why we love this party in the first place. It’s easy to admire the way the filmmaker’s prismatic mind works, and how he delights in exploring the many sides to any story. As always in a Desplechin production, the exquisitely chosen musical soundtrack for A Christmas Tale is its own reward, a glorious mash-up of musical sensibilities. It’s no accident that the ethereal opening chords of Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream figure prominently in this winter’s tale: The movie is enchanting. A