Holiday films in the hands of Hollywood make me puke. Mom is usually expiring from something terminal while the family dresses the Christmas tree with brave smiles. This French knockout, tough-minded and all the more affecting for it, turned my head around. It hits hard — even the laughs are killers. I should say that Mom (Catherine Deneuve, still an actress and beauty to die for) is slipping away from liver cancer.
So what makes this one magic? Start with director Arnaud Desplechin, who co-wrote the deft script with Emmanuel Bourdieu. Desplechin (Kings and Queen, How I Got Into an Argument) is a world-class filmmaker, not some studio hack. He can maintain a light touch even in the face of tragedy. He can layer a film so that it's always springing surprises. He can reference Shakespeare, drop in a puppet show or a kitsch scene from The Ten Commandments, and make them fit like pieces in a Byzantine puzzle. He can have actors face the camera and talk right at you. It all works.
The cast is heaven, starting with Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon as her much older husband, Mathieu Amalric as their prodigal son and Emmanuelle Devos as the Jewish fiancee the son brings home for Christmas. Dark secrets are unlocked, words draw more blood than punches, and Desplechin turns one family into a universe that resembles life as a startling work of art.