It's fitting that the country that gave the world existentialism and Gauloises should turn out a holiday family drama almost completely bereft of good cheer. Set in the days immediately preceding Christmas, A Christmas Tale takes a close look at a family that isn't so much dysfunctional, as they function by a set of rules entirely their own.

Disease and death stalk the Vuillard family, and, as in any family, long-harbored resentments lurk. As the camera follows Junon (Catherine Deneuve), Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and their three adult children in the days leading up to Christmas, we learn that the family lost a child to cancer years ago. The loss had a profound impact on the Vuillards—less a clear cause-and-effect relationship rather than a slow permutation of the family's basic structure.

Years after the death of her child, matriarch Junon is herself diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Her odds of survival, untreated, are slim, but the unflappable Junon seems more concerned about the skin rashes that might result from a marrow transplant than by the possibility of death. Meanwhile, Junon's perpetually melancholy daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) is struggling with her son's mental illness, and the onset of the holidays further exacerbates her dour outlook by forcing her to see her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric), whom she banished from her life five years before.

The film can be confusing—there's a whole trunkful of baggage in addition to what's mentioned above—and few of its various plotlines resolve in any traditional sense. As a clear-eyed picture of a contemporary family, though, in which interactions are driven by a complex and unspoken set of rules, it's an engaging, surprisingly funny success.