by Leo Goldsmith (November 11, 2008)

Though it often seems the nadir of schmaltz and sentimentality, the Hollywood Christmas movie has always been a bit bipolar. From “A Christmas Story” to “Gremlins,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” to (undoubtedly) the forthcoming “Four Christmases,” the subgenre requires a course of dysfunction and chaos before the dessert of earnest holiday cheer is served. Mom and Dad’s best-laid plans go awry, Santa Claus gets trapped in the chimney and asphyxiates, and Arnold and Sinbad vie for the last available Turbo Man action figure — but in the end, families are reconciled and the true, noncommercial meaning of Christmas is reified.

In this way, Arnaud Desplechin‘s “A Christmas Tale” is very much of a piece with this largely American subgenre, though its Gallic accent is unmistakable. Desplechin’s film begins with a funeral and ends with major oncological surgery, but its large down payments of nastiness are put toward well-earned, heartwarming reconciliations.

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