Set in Paris during the countdown to Christmas Eve, Danièle Thompson’s by turns hilarious and wounding La Bûche disproves the cliché that adultery is what holds French marriages together. Thompson wrote Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and like that film, her directorial debut feature is an intricate web of secrets, lies, and revelations. Tracking who’s who and what they’ve done to each other will keep you on your toes and even make you a bit giddy. Much of the viewer’s pleasure comes from putting bits of the puzzle together before the people on the screen do. Knowledge is power; leavened with mystery, it feels like love.
The title refers to the traditional French Christmas dessert, La Bûche de Noël, a buttercream-slathered cake shaped like a Yule log. Like the decorations blanketing the city’s architectural beauty and the omnipresent holiday music, it awakens memories, most of them mixed. “Christmas cake makes me gag,” says the youngest of the film’s three sisters as she defiantly leaps into a love affair that’s not as transgressive as she believes. Nostalgia nauseates because it’s based in the conflicted oral impulses of childhood; the youngest sister has to choke back the memories of Christmas past, lest they plunge her into what the middle sister calls “a holiday-hostile depression.” And since the sisters are members of an extended part-Jewish family living in a Catholic country, Christmas delivers a double whammy of alienation.
Children of a musician and an actress (played by Claude Rich and Françoise Fabian), the sisters have incorporated the passion and betrayal that defined their parents’ bitterly failed marriage into their own love lives. The oldest sister (Sabine Azéma) works as a gypsy singer in a Russian nightclub and is pregnant by the lover who has been promising for 12 years to leave his wife when his two daughters are grown. What she doesn’t know is that he and his wife now have four children with another on the way. Not that the film takes a judgmental position against him or the relationship. Rather, Thompson suggests that love is messy, torturous, and occasionally joyous, and that the joy is worth fighting for.
The middle sister (Emmanuelle Béart) gave up a promising career to marry a rich man who’s about to leave her for a younger woman. Sublimating her anxiety into organizing a Christmas Eve dinner for the entire family, she shops, cooks, and decorates with an intensity that makes Martha Stewart look like a slacker. The youngest sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who refuses to be distracted from her career by love, can’t help but be drawn to the beautiful young man (Christopher Thompson, the director’s son and screenwriting partner) who rents a room from her father. Like everyone else in the film, he is in the midst of a family crisis.
Beginning with a funeral and ending with two characters poised on the brink of the kind of fairy-tale romance that life seldom delivers, La Bûche is an emotional shape-shifter that captures the manic-depressive intensity of the holiday season. Thompson keeps her focus (and ours) on the actors, most of whom have never been as luminous as they are here. How can you resist a film that features Azéma, the habitually arch, intellectual darling of French cinema, belting out “My Yiddishe Mama”?
A much less successful holiday panorama, Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking? interweaves Thanksgiving dinner celebrations at the homes of four Los Angeles families: one Latino, one Vietnamese, one African American, and one Jewish. Chadha’s first feature was the ebullient Bhaji on the Beach, a feminist comedy set in an Indian community in the north of England—a community that Chadha knows very well and depicted with specificity and verve. But her new film trades in sitcom stereotypes and crosscuts predictably from family to family as if under the misapprehension that equal time is a dramatic principle. Among the huge cast, Mercedes Ruehl, Dennis Haysbert, Kyra Sedgwick, Julianna Margulies, and Joan Chen make the strongest impressions, but they’ve all been seen to better advantage elsewhere.
Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September has already played on cable and won an Academy Award for feature documentary, but it’s far from old news. It could be described as the most gripping political thriller to hit the big screen in many years, although given the events it depicts through interviews, photographs, and news footage, the words “gripping” and “thriller” have inappropriately frivolous and commercial associations.
In 1972, members of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group, invaded the Israeli compound at the Munich Olympics, took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, and tried to negotiate for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners, a demand the Israeli government refused to entertain. While the games continued, TV cameras were trained on the compound, and on the German police and government officials who bungled a couple of rescue attempts, including one where a team of volunteers scaled the roof only to discover that an East German television crew, shooting from the top of an adjacent building, had been transmitting live, thus enabling the terrorists to follow the rescue team’s every move on TV. Eventually a plan was concocted to lure the terrorists and their captives to an airport where snipers would take out the Palestinians. The terrorists massacred all their prisoners before all but three of them were killed by the Germans.
Macdonald had incredible footage to work with, but his primary coup is an interview with the only Black September survivor, who has been living underground since he and two others escaped to Libya during an extremely suspect Lufthansa hijacking. While it has been believed for years that the German government had made a deal with the Palestinians to allow the three terrorists to escape (one of the officials interviewed essentially admits to this), the film is extraordinarily courageous in exposing what the Germans did, or more to the point, failed to do during the Olympic crisis. You are left with only two possible explanations, both quite damning. Either the German authorities were incompetent, or someone among them was acting in collusion with the terrorists.
The flaw of One Day in September is that while it goes to great lengths to give the Israeli athletes their full humanity through home movies and testimonies of friends and relatives, it gives no such attention to the terrorists nor to the history of Palestinian displacement.