We Like our Christmas Films Wrapped in Dysfunction

•Vive la difference. Newly arrived is "A Christmas Tale," a critically lauded art-house delicacy imported from France and directed by Arnaud Desplechin. The seasonal melodrama takes liberties with many of the usual genre clichés — grudges, illness, suicide, infidelity — as Catherine Deneuve gathers her fractious brood about her and faces possible death from cancer with Gallic nonchalance.

Much like De Villa, Desplechin says, "I love the genre. It was lovely to be working in the mainstream. But each time I work on a movie, I ask myself, 'How can I make it mine?' I bend the rules slightly." Instead of trading insults and quips when everyone first dines together, typical of most movie families, this group sits in tense silence.

Usually during the course of such get-togethers as 2005's The Family Stone, "You wait an hour and 10 minutes before you hear the ultimate confessions," he says. "With my film, you are aware of them from the beginning." That includes details about a sickly son, the second of four children, whose death from lymphoma at age 6 hangs over the proceedings like sad tinsel.

Just as in real life, the season's high expectations and heavy emotional baggage shared by guests and hosts alike can take their toll onscreen. They also lend much-needed plot tension and, often, comic relief.

"As Tolstoy said, 'Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,' " says Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. "A perfectly happy family in a Christmas movie is not going to sell anything."

The tone of such films often can reflect the current cultural mood. The woes bedeviling Stewart's George Bailey were symptomatic of post-World War II anxieties. The jubilant ending — Zuzu's petals, ringing bell, angel wings and all — that he shared with the citizens of Bedford Falls was a tonic for uncertain times.

"It's a Wonderful Life topped the American Film Institute's list of the most inspiring movies of all time," Farley says. "None of the Christmas films now come close. Instead, there is slapstick and more extreme behavior and raucous stuff. There's been a sea change since the '40s."

These days, comedy most often trumps sentiment, although a few manage to mingle the two. "A Christmas Story," a TV perennial from 1983 that has joined "It's a Wonderful Life" on the must-viewing holiday list, strikes an all-too-human balance. Despite the 1940s setting, most people can relate to young Ralphie's burning desire for the Red Ryder BB gun atop his gift list. They can also chuckle when, after countless warnings by spoilsport adults, he still almost shoots his eye out.

"There is some value in seeing ourselves in the characters and laughing at it. It is a therapeutic effect," says Gary Hoppenstand, a professor of American studies at Michigan State University. He is particularly fond of Chase's fruitless pursuit of holiday nirvana in "Christmas Vacation." "He wants a wonderful experience with his in-laws, who turn out to be creeps. He wants a close relationship with his kids, but it is stressed. He considers his decorating a grand achievement, but it's mocked as a disaster."

Such exaggerations often carry a nugget of truth. "The holidays can be a very depressing time," he says. "Comedy can help us laugh at ourselves and realize we are fallible, too."

A cranky Christmas

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