‘A Christmas Tale’ of woes and recriminations

Seasonal family gatherings are a prime cinematic arena for dramatic dysfunction. There’s nothing like a holiday reunion, it seems, to get a fractious clan in the mood for bad behavior and heartwarming catharsis. On paper, Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” (2008) -- in which an extended middle-class French family comes together for a round robin of brusque confessions, drunken accusations and general acting out -- would seem to offer more of the same.

But in fact -- and this is key, since the gifted Desplechin is nothing if not a maximalist -- it offers much, much more. “A Christmas Tale,” out on DVD this week from the Criterion Collection, packs several movies’ worth of intrigue and incident, not to mention almost every known emotion, into its cacophonous 2 1/2 hours.

The baggage-laden Vuillards, presided over by the serene paterfamilias, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), are convening for the holidays in the northern town of Roubaix, their first Christmas celebration in years to include all three grown siblings.

The middle child and black sheep, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), was banished from the family some time ago by older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a depressed playwright and the mother of unstable teenager Paul (Emile Berling).

Many of Desplechin’s films are about life in the shadow of death. (His 1991 debut, set in the wake of a young man’s suicide attempt, was titled “La Vie des Morts” -- the life of the dead.)

The regal matriarch of “A Christmas Tale,” Junon (Catherine Deneuve), has just been diagnosed with bone cancer, the same illness that killed her first-born decades ago. Further complicating the fraught filial dynamics, she now requires a marrow transfusion from one of her offspring.

The movie might not be autobiographical, but it’s filled with personalizing details. Roubaix is Desplechin’s hometown, and the reunion theme extends off-screen: Most of the actors have previously worked with him, notably Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos, the stars of “My Sex Life” (1996) and “Kings and Queen” (2004).

Criterion’s bonus disc includes “L’aimée,” a 2007 documentary by Desplechin about the selling of his family home and his father’s recollections of a mother he never knew. This meditative film is both the tonal opposite of “A Christmas Tale” and its real-life analogue, likewise concerned with how we remember the dead and how we consecrate them in family myths.

The setup of “A Christmas Tale” echoes any number of home-for-the-holidays comic melodramas (“Pieces of April,” “The Family Stone”), down to the feuding siblings and ailing mother. But while its American counterparts run on clockwork, stirring up resentment before wrapping everyone together in a therapeutic group hug, “A Christmas Tale” has no interest in resolving conflicts or rationalizing the contradictory impulses of its volatile characters.

In fact, the messier the emotions, the more vibrant the filmmaking. Desplechin’s movies are unpredictable from moment to moment, filled with detours and tangents, just as his characters are prone to mood swings.

“We’re in the midst of a myth,” Henri says at one point, “and I don’t know what myth it is.”

Desplechin, as is his wont, tries several on for size. The names of the parents alone, Abel and Junon, suggest realms of mythic possibility. There’s an impish running allusion to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” -- the 1935 film and the Mendelssohn overture are glimpsed and heard. “The Ten Commandments” plays on the TV; one scene pays swooning homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Abel quotes Nietzsche and Emerson.

The sprawl and sheer density of his films can be exhausting -- Desplechin has described his method by invoking one of François Truffaut’s maxims: “Every minute, four ideas.”

But “A Christmas Tale,” despite the superabundance of references, is not a daunting text that requires interpretive heavy lifting. The competing levels of meaning, even if left unparsed, register subliminally, contributing to a larger sense of possibility and flux.

There is an infectious giddiness in Desplechin’s best movies, not least in the joy and energy of the filmmaking. The soundtrack darts from Mingus to hip-hop to raga. As the dozen or so characters jostle for their turns in the spotlight, sometimes addressing the camera, Desplechin experiments with an array of tricks (jump-cuts, freeze frames, split screens) that would be jarring in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

“A Christmas Tale” is certainly in the spirit of seasonal overindulgence, but Desplechin’s excesses are a mark both of his generosity and of his belief in the irreducible complexity of human behavior.