With much more bravado, and much more venom, than the usual family drama, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale finds its French auteur mining familiar territory, with uncommonly successful results. Unlike most films of its genre, A Christmas Tale chooses to set its family’s baggage in plain sight from the outset. The opening moments of the film recount the death of a child, offer a cancer diagnosis and a frantic hunt for a bone marrow donor, chronicle how a son came to be disowned by his family due to a sister’s manipulations, and startle with a suicide attempt. By frontloading the dramatic meat of the story, though, the film becomes less about shocking revelations or plot twists than the sometimes comic, sometimes serious dynamics of a family under extreme strain.
A Christmas Tale sees Desplechin unleashing his whole bag of tricks, from fisheye lenses to freeze frames, from blaring background music to warm, slow dissolves, from split screens to characters that address the audience directly. So much aggressive style doesn’t detract from the drama, so much as it lends it a knowing, filmic quality that makes the misanthropy on display more tolerable. Beyond that, though, it makes for an impressive display of filmmaking prowess. Perhaps one could argue that every formal choice is not perfectly judged (the director pointlessly chops up space during the father's funeral oration, for example), but taken as a whole, the resulting film is consistent in tone and consistently inspired, especially compared with the jarring jump cuts and histrionics of Desplechin’s similar Kings & Queen.