May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 18, 2009
I like Christmas sentimentality in reasonable doses, but for me, the sappiness can get to be a bit much this time of year. Coupled with the piles of fudge and sugar cookies that come into our office, I get to feeling like I’m in a perpetual sugar coma. Movies, of course, to the rescue.
Last year, I reviewed the French film A Christmas Tale over at Paste. It was one of those happy accidents: a film which I went to solely for the cast (everyone you’ve ever seen in a French movie except Gerard Depardieu), but didn’t have high expectations, as I saw it so far in advance of release that I hadn’t caught any buzz.
It was on my top ten list last year. Criterion released it to DVD this month. And I saw recently that Anne Thompson (one of my favorite film writers) had it on her top ten of the decade. That’s got to be worth something, right?
The film’s title is ironic (although, come to think of it, a movie with a similar title – A Christmas Story – is similarly off-kilter). This is no cheery tale of Christmas togetherness, though there is a family, and snow and presents, and even a Christmas tree. It’s irresistibly devilish.
If you think your family is insufferable, you probably should watch this movie to put things in perspective. The venom is amazing. Mothers, sisters and sons hate one another, brothers and cousins, mental and physical illness, scandal, banishment: this family’s got it all.
And yet somehow I came away from the movie having laughed, with my heart strangely warmed. Apparently you can hold bile and some kind of love in tension, and A Christmas Tale manages it beautifully, while it’s also hurling projectiles at you.
Notes on a Scandal (2006) is not a Christmas film at all, but it came out at Christmas, and so I think about it this time of year. It tells the story of a disturbing affair between a teacher (Cate Blanchett) and a fifteen-year-old student, but then turns even darker, as Judi Dench finds out and is not letting go.
Based on a Zoe Heller novel, the film does not flinch at its psychologically horrifying protagonists and their actions. It delves into the nature of temptation, obsession, wrongdoing, and mistrust. In a world that’s continually goading us to “follow your heart,” Notes on a Scandal shows us what can happen when that’s done indiscriminately.
It’s also just great filmmaking, with Dench and Blanchett searing holes in the screen and an Oscar-nominated Philip Glass score. (Dench, Blanchett, and screenwriter Patrick Marber were all nominated for Oscars as well.) And perhaps the best testament: I haven’t seen it since early January 2007 – nearly three years ago – and I still think about the film. It haunts me.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.