The title A Christmas Tale suggests an innocuous holiday movie, and there are even a few surface similarities between the new film and a seasonal hit from 2005, The Family Stone.

The title A Christmas Tale suggests an innocuous holiday movie, and there are even a few surface similarities between the new film and a seasonal hit from 2005, The Family Stone.

One of the most significant differences here, and the biggest gift co-writer-director Arnaud Desplechin gives to viewers, is a cast of fascinating and unpredictable characters.

An odd, exceptionally heavy set of gifts is on the Vuillard family's list over a holiday reunion. Matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is hoping for a few more years of life after a recent cancer diagnosis, from the possibility of finding a compatible bone-marrow donor among relatives.

Ne'er-do-well middle child Henri (Mathieu Almaric) wants forgiveness from older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who's refused to see him for years. She wants happiness, for herself and her mentally unstable teenage son Paul (Emile Berling). Recognizing some of his younger self, baby brother Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) wants to save Paul as well.

Aside from the one child-made holiday play on film that I'd actually want to see in real life, Desplechin avoids the emotion-wringing scenes you normally see in a Christmas movie. Having faith in the strength of his characters and an exceptional cast, he allows them to just go about their few days together, with funny and devastating quips and revelations arising naturally (or with help from alcohol).

As with Desplechin's sublime Kings and Queen, in this tale, surface value is practically nil. Each individual and relationship has a rich depth to sink into, and even after two-and-a-half hours, it's hard to pull away.