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A Christmas Tale is the perfect antidote to holiday movie fatigue

The 2008 black comedy about a dysfunctional French family at the holidays is a shot in the arm.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale
Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Thanks to Christmas, we have scores of beloved, seasonally appropriate movies we can revisit every year, from It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas to A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Santa Clause, and Elf.

But even for those who love the classics, the optimism and love-one-another sweetness of Christmas movies can start to feel like a sugar overdose. One way to correct for this is to make R-rated Christmas comedies that crank up the raunch and do their best to make everyone cringe while they’re laughing. The only Christmas movies the movie studio system seem to produce lately are this kind, and strictly for adults: Bad Moms Christmas, Bad Santa 2, Office Christmas Party, and Why Him?

Which is fine, I guess. But not everyone’s into scatological and frat party humor. Another approach to counteracting the effects of Too Much Christmas Cheer is to check out a movie that more faithfully depicts the kind of dysfunction lots of families experience at Christmas, with humor, satire, and the knowledge that even those who experience a lot of friction have something to give one another at the holidays.

That’s A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin’s hilarious and biting dark comedy about a French family who gets together for Christmas when its matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with blood cancer. Old fights come back to the surface, and old slights are resurrected. Relationships break down. Furtive, forbidden sex is had. Insults fly.

It’s much less depressing than that sounds, though: In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that “A Christmas Tale skates on thin ice across a crowded lake, arrives safely on the far shore, and shares a cup of hot cocoa and marshmallows with Death.”

Additionally, the film boasts a fantastic cast of prominent French actors, some of whom are recognizable even to those who aren’t French film nerds — especially Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, and of course screen legend Deneueve.

A Christmas Tale is constructed as a series of small moments in the family’s Christmas celebrations. There’s no obvious plot arc — it begins when they arrive and ends when they leave — but every character makes some small discovery during the few days, and everyone from the grandkids to the patriarch get their own screen time.

Most of all, though, the film never gets too melancholy, always opting for wryness over weepiness. It’s the perfect corrective to slip away and watch when the season gets too syrupy — and you might just make a small discovery about yourself, too.

Watch the trailer for A Christmas Tale:

A Christmas Tale is available to stream on Filmstruck and Hulu or rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, or Vudu.

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