Arnaud Desplechin doesn't so much direct movies as conduct marathons. Packed with frantic gestures, free-associative allusions and titanic meltdowns, his films are unwieldy, bracingly omnivorous creatures—as exhilarating as they are exhausting. A Christmas Tale crams enough drama in its preamble (sibling rivalry, deaths, a family's history of illness) for two or three productions, and that's just the backstory for this sprawling yet intimate portrait of a tension-cracked familial get-together. The Vuillard household over Christmastime sets the stage—sometimes literally, as theatricality remains one of Desplechin's chief motifs—for a whirlwind of overlapping fights, secrets and reunions precipitated by the matriarch Junon's (Catherine Deneuve) revelation that she has cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant from one of her children. Getting the entire clan to the dinner table is itself a challenge, since playwright daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) has banished her fuck-up brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) from the family, an uncomfortable surprise threatens youngest son Ivan's (Melvil Poupaud) marriage to Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), and grandson Paul (Emile Berling) is still shaken from a suicide attempt.
Nominally set in the dysfunctional holiday-gathering provinces of Pieces of April and The Family Stone, Desplechin's tragicomedy is closer to the director's earlier Kings and Queen in its labyrinthine private mythologies and spilling-over energy. Confining itself to the Vuillards' home, however, the film is both more focused and in its discordant way more expansive, finding an unforced metaphor for parent-child dynamics in Junon's surgery and accommodating the cantankerous warmth of paterfamilias Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillion) and the mordant irony of Henri's Jewish squeeze Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) with equal affection. Desplechin's love for his characters is compounded by his fervidly eclectic filmmaking: There are irises, shadow puppetry, jump cuts, split-screens, and—why not?—an out-of-nowhere Vertigo reference. As befits its sprat-gun approach, A Christmas Tale works best in beguiling fragments than as a fused whole. Even when it has too many plates spinning, however, its emotions still scintillate.