PICK A Christmas Tale: And You Thought Your Holiday Gatherings Were Messy?

Twelve days of seasonal merriment, and then some. This comic, ultimately touching family melodrama is a heady plum pudding of a movie—studded with outsized performances and drenched in cinematic brio. The concoction is over-rich, yet irresistible. The narrative pattern seems to extend every which way at once as director Arnaud Desplechin brings the Vuillard clan back to their parental home in Roubaix, a small city on the Belgian border. The gathering is not only prompted by the season but by the discovery that the family's chic and imperious matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The family's first-born son, Joseph, died of the same cancer at age six. His sister, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), remains traumatized, as does her younger brother Henri (Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric, in another madcap performance), who was conceived in the hopes that he'd prove to be a compatible bone-marrow donor for his doomed sibling. As Kings and Queen made clear, Desplechin thrives on drunken escapades, medical procedures, blunt confessions, grand gestures, and screwball riffs. Working the border of cute without ever crossing over, he's protected by the energy of his film tinkering. Not unlike this movie, the Vuillard home is crammed with stuff—including a doll-house model of itself. The place is a kind of theater, consecrated to the universal, atavistic belief that the dead return to their families at the New Year season. Protesting his "banishment" from the family nest, Henri writes to Elizabeth that "we're in the midst of a myth, and I don't know what myth it is." In any case, the myth is overwhelming.

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