The holiday family-reunion movie is often as excruciating and treacly as the fraught, multigenerational gatherings it depicts. Rare is the masterwork, like Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," which shows Yuletide festivities so magically you want to linger inside them forever. But "A Christmas Tale," French director Arnaud Desplechin's funny, tempestuous film, both conforms to the rules of the genre and explodes them. There is, of course, a big, contentious family reunion. The relatives arrive knowing that the matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) has cancer, and that she's hoping one of her offspring will prove a compatible bone-marrow donor.
If this all sounds sentimental, don't worry—it's French. There are fistfights at the dinner table and bed swappings that barely raise an eyebrow. The family's alcoholic black sheep (Mathieu Amalric)—who had been banished by his depressive older sister (Anne Consigny)—returns and wreaks havoc.
Desplechin ("Kings and Queen") fills his movies with raw nerves, wild tonal shifts and characters so free of cliché that you're constantly revising your opinion of them. He's an inspired impurist, and his "Christmas Tale" is untidy, overstuffed and delicious: a genuine holiday feast.