[4.5 stars] It may be a mistake to call this a "dysfunctional family Christmas movie." The individuals of the Vuillard family have, in fact, all submitted themselves to the precise roles that will allow the family to function. And that is the real problem. Each has to contort himself, at times almost beyond human recognition, in order for things to make a certain sort of sense. There is distance in how they address each other: no "maman", no "papa", just first names all around. The system that allows this family to function even includes "Anatole," an imaginary wolf that lives in the basement. It is a well-honed system.
The mother, father, three siblings, assorted cousins and spouses that populate this family tree all have a psychic tie to a withered root, namely the firstborn son, Joseph, who died of a rare cancer at age six. Elizabeth, the oldest surviving child, complains of a grief that has no apparent source. She is the type of person we all have met at some time in our lives, someone whose main grievance is that she feels herself to be inadequately aggrieved. She completely surrenders herself to the false martyrdom of self-pity, willingly clutching each grudge to her bosom, even as it drains her of life and poisons everyone around her.
We see how Henri, the middle child, becomes Elizabeth's chosen victim, and Ivan, the youngest, tries to mollify everyone. All of this has a decidedly theatrical effect. The family members are depicted as performers just as much as the Ekdahls are in Fanny and Alexander (Special Edition Five-Disc Set) - Criterion Collection, with whose first 90 minutes A CHRISTMAS TALE bears more than a passing resemblance. This masquerade also has, as a point of reference, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, both in the brief appearance of the 1935 movie on the TV screen, and in Mendelssohn's incidental music, playing on the soundtrack.
The directorial style of this film is something all its own. It uses film grammar from every era of cinema history, throwing it all into one big pot. Somehow it works. I kept thinking of Harold Bloom's assertion that "strangeness" is the quality that distinguishes lasting works of art. There is the strangeness that so assimilates us that we no longer see it as strange: Shakespeare, Griffith, Hitchcock. And there is the strangeness that cannot be assimilated: Sterne, Beckett, Buñuel.
A CHRISTMAS TALE possesses the latter variety of strangeness. You're not going to pull this out and watch it every holiday season. But you may choose to see it repeatedly for the fascinating, dreamlike dance in the interaction of its characters.