The first hint that "A Christmas Tale" probably isn't your standard holly-jolly holiday fare: the opening scene in which a woman with terminal cancer collapses, bringing a tray of teacups clattering to the floor with her. Another hint that "A Christmas Tale" isn't your standard holly-jolly holiday fare: the second scene, in which the woman's daughter tells her therapist: "I'm sterile. I'm unhappy. Angry. Seething with anger."
It's the dark themes in Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," however, that are exactly what make it such a refreshing change from the predictable, candy-cane-coated nonsense that Hollywood spits out during the holiday season. Released in theaters last year and out this week on DVD and Blu-ray (both $40) courtesy of the Criterion Collection, this absorbing French film focuses on the wounds that are reopened when the Vuillard family tries to find a bone-marrow match for their ailing matriarch and, in their own dysfunctional way, celebrates the holidays together.
Desplechin's engagingly moody, messy work also stands as a more realistic and experimental piece of filmmaking, one that's mercifully devoid of squirm-inducing attempts at screwball comedy. Even when things are at their most intense at the Vuillard home - a husband punches a brother-in-law and a son leads a Christmas Eve toast by calling his mother and sister names that can't be printed in a family newspaper - the storytelling is so absorbing that the viewer feels totally comfortable about settling in for a 2 1/2-hour cinematic stay.
Desplechin - who directs a solid ensemble of French actors, including Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and the ever-regal Catherine Deneuve - bathes many of his scenes in golden hues even when the plot doesn't scream "happy glow." All that light gleams particularly beautifully in Blu-ray's high-definition format. But the extras on both editions, sadly, don't add much to the mix.
The only special features are a short film by Desplechin about the sale of his family home and a 35-minute documentary in which Deneuve, Amalric and Desplechin talk about making the movie. Of the two, the short film proves more deserving. Although it's nice to hear directly from the key players, the doc never takes us fully inside the movie-making experience. The film, however, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplechin's relatives: his grandmother, who contracted tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother and grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who nurtured him into adulthood.
"A Christmas Tale" touches on all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that make up a family's history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what the holiday is all about.