Soap operas spice up predictable melodrama with unpredictability — and, ironically, melodrama, no matter how tear-jerking, supports its plot lines with characters that basically are the pillars of the comic structure: hapless heroes and heroines, and the villains who block their way to the inevitable happy ending of warm togetherness. If you’re familiar with the genre at all, you know the essential who and what. The hook is discovering the particular where, when and how.
La Bûche opens like a Christmas present to Paris. It’s Dec. 21 and the snowy streets of the City of Lights are decorated with care in twinkling bulbs, shiny ornaments and the colors of the season, red and green. They stir with professional Santas and elves and holiday shoppers. But Yvette’s (Françoise Fabian, Maud of My Night at Maud’s) wreath hangs on the back of a black van that serves as a hearse for her late husband, Jean-Louis. This doesn’t keep her three daughters from discussing their Christmas plans later over lunch. Jean-Louis was just their stepfather and they have decorations and seating plans to discuss.
The youngest and the black sheep of the family, Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the titular character of The Little Thief), does admit that “dropping dead on Dec. 20th is lousy timing,” though she believes “the world sucks enough without Christmas.” Typically, Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart, Time Regained), the perfect daughter, has to disagree with her: “Christmas is symbolic, a time of joy for the whole family.” Her sentiment later proves to be ironic when she and her husband argue about their infidelities in front of their Christmas tree — and their young son. Eldest daughter Louba (Sabine Azéma, A Sunday in the Country) steps in to mediate between them as usual.
It’s a start that promises to stand the routine holiday-with-the-family story on its head with a flip of clever irony. But it’s a promise ultimately unfulfilled. Enter our hapless hero, Joseph (Christopher Thompson, The Luzhin Defence). Handsome Joseph works as a set electrician for a living and drinks vodka for a hobby. He lives in the former practice studio of the women’s father, violinist Stanislas (Claude Rich). More than Milla, Stanislas is the family’s true Scrooge (“Christmas is the birthday of a social-climbing Jew,” he grumbles). Along the way writer-director Danièle Thompson reveals our three heroines as damsels distressed by l’amour. Then La Bûche, like Ed Burns’ Sidewalks of New York, becomes just a clever, well-produced soap opera.
Even more than Burns’ film, La Bûche remarkably begs comparison to Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Each film occurs during holidays (a year framed by two Thanksgivings in Hannah, four days before Christmas in La Bûche ). Both are centered on three sisters raised in show-biz households fraught with infidelities and warring parents. In both, the oldest sister is the hub that holds together families that would otherwise fly apart. Each set of women includes the archetypical roles of perfect daughter, mediator and black sheep (Mia Farrow’s superwoman Hannah, manages the first two by herself). All but the lovelorn (Milla and, initially, Dianne Wiest’s Holly in Hannah) find themselves either wives or mistresses cheated on, cheating or both. They lay less than snugly in their beds (or the beds of their lovers) with, most likely, thoughts of divorce, guilt and loneliness running through their heads.
Like any daytime drama, true or fictional, there are secrets surprisingly revealed for a twist of flavor. Everyone but poor Milla seems to have one. But once they are revealed and the air cleared, the inevitable happy ending comes around right on schedule, wrapping the story up like a pretty Christmas present.
But the happy ending isn’t the problem. It’s that none of the characters seem to truly and bitterly struggle to earn its sweetness. La Bûche ends up as bland as fruitcake and may go down even easier, but it’s no holiday classic. Like most Christmas diversions, it will most likely be forgotten when the season passes.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.