The holiday family reunion movie is often as excruciating and treacly as the fraught, multigenerational gatherings it depicts. (Recent example: "The Family Stone.") Rare is the masterwork, like Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," that depicts Yuletide festivities so magically you want to linger inside them forever. Suspicion, then, is justified when a movie called "A Christmas Tale" opens near Thanksgiving. But 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 brothers, sisters, cousins and grandchildren who reunite for the first time in years arrive knowing that the matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) has cancer. She's hoping that one of her offspring will prove a compatible bone-marrow donor.
If this all sounds sentimental, don't worry, it's French. There are spats and brutal recriminations, 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, angry older sister (Anne Consigny)—returns and wreaks havoc. Some of the story's ingredients may seem routine, but nothing in this two-and-a-half-hour roller coaster unfolds as expected.
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 like a pitcher who always keeps you guessing: curveballs, sliders, spitballs and sometimes a fast one right over the plate. His madly eclectic score, which jams together Mingus, Mendelssohn, Gershwin, Vivaldi and hip-hop, sets the tone: Desplechin is an inspired impurist. His "Christmas Tale" is untidy, overstuffed and delicious: a genuine holiday feast.