Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Emmanuelle Bˇart, Sabine Azˇma, Fran¨oise Fabian, Claude Rich, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Christopher Thompson
Written by: Dani¸le Thompson, Christopher Thompson
Directed by: Dani¸le Thompson
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 30/11/2001

La bûche (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Christmas Jeer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I usually can't resist Christmas movies (unless they have Tim Allen or Arnold Schwarznegger in them) and I can never resist an Emmanuelle Béart movie, no matter who else is in it. So I was really looking forward to the new French confection by Danièle Thompson, the writer of Queen Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train turned director. La Bûche -- named for an exquisite and ornate Christmas desert -- opens today at the Opera Plaza and at the Rafael Film Center.

Most Christmas movies are geared toward kids, and since most movie producers think kids are stupid, the movies turn out to be stupid. On the other hand, the enduring classics like A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story are all smart. So why would anyone want to watch Tim Allen fall down a lot over and over year after year?

So Thompson's movie promised a rare treat: a Christmas story for adults. Its focus, like so many other movies this year, is people's inability to communicate with one another. Every character in La Bûche ends up suffering from the lack of information that some other character didn't tell them.

The story revolves around three extraordinarily different siblings: Louba (Sabine Azéma) who sings in a Russian café, Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart), whose sad marriage to a wealthy man seems stable and rigid to outsiders, and Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is the youngest -- fierce, brilliant and sad. Their mother Yvette (Françoise Fabian) and musician father Stanislas (Claude Rich) are separated and have apparently not spent the holidays together in decades.

The film begins at Yvette's second husband's funeral, just a few days before Christmas. Thompson throws in the movie's biggest laugh as a way of introducing the themes of the film: as the corpse is lowered into his grave, the cell phone in his pocket begins to ring.

Everyone in the movie is remarried or having an affair or cheating on someone. After a very long affair with a married man, Louba finds herself pregnant while in her 40s. Sonia discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, although she's apparently been cheating on him as well (as we see from her quick afternoon fling with a butcher). Even her children, who call the holidays the "cease-fire" period, know.

In addition, the father Stanislas is letting a young stranger named Joseph (Christopher Thompson) live in a large storage shed across the street from his apartment for free.

Worst of all, the children find out for the first time that their father has children (their half-siblings) with another woman that he's never told them about.

Yes, everyone's life is screwed-up and complicated. And though the storybooks and Christmas specials tell us so, family may not be the solution. We expect the five characters to come together in a big, happy Christmas feast at the end of the film, but Thompson has other plans for them.

Perhaps because she's not seeing or having sex with anyone, our attention and sympathy automatically goes to the fiery Milla, who is described as her "father's favorite." Thompson plays her worst trick on poor Milla, introducing her to the man of her dreams but throwing up a huge roadblock -- the truth behind which remains elusive only to the parties involved.

Yet with all this confusion and misery, Thompson manages to make the film feel light and funny; perhaps through the use of the delightful score by Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Band of Outsiders) and the Christmas songs by Dean Martin and others. The film lags mostly during a few brief scenes in which Thompson has her characters address the camera for a few sullen monologues.

It doesn't leave you with a lump in your throat and a warm feeling toward your fellow man, but La Bûche is nonetheless a fine achievement along the lines of Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays. Taking part in someone else's suffering may help you laugh at your own.

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