Thursday 3 December 2020

On French TV for Christmas (and streaming)- John Baxter ponders the movie ghosts of Christmas pasts PÉRE NOEL EST UNE ORDURE (Jean-Marie Poiré, France, 1982)

Gerard Jugnot, Christian Clavier,
Pére Noel est une Ordure 
            December in the Australia of my childhood meant blowflies, bushfires and, as unwelcome as either, Christmas songs and films. Hard to say which was worse, the yo-ho-ho of sleigh bells we would never hear for ourselves and the snow we would never feel, or the ersatz Aussie-ism of Rolf Harris’s Six White Boomers – now banned in many Australian churches, a plus for music if not for morality

            Miracle on 34thStreet had its annual TV outing, as well as usual suspectsWhite Christmas, Holiday Inn and, if we were fortunate, Meet Me In St Louis. TV programmes wrenched their plots around to accommodate an episode with some seasonal cheer but, due to the vagaries of distribution, we generally saw those six months late. 

            Envy the happy scarcity of those reticent days. Today we face a blizzard of festive films, dragging the feast into every conceivable cinematic situation. As well as gratuitous remakes of such classics as The Bishop’s Wife (as The Preacher’s Wife – with Denzel Washington hoping to out-do Cary Grant? -  there are films about Santa Claus retiring or being kidnapped, or elves taking over the franchise, or lovers meeting or not meeting in the midst of seasonal shopping frenzies, not forgetting heists with criminal Kris Kringles or psychopathic Santas and a severed head in their sacks for each unsuspecting tot. 

            For Christmas cynicism, however, even Bad Santa lags behind the French, with one film in particular leading the way..

            Pére Noel est une Ordure – Father Christmas is a Stinker, in the politest translation– began as a farce collectively written by Paris cafe theatre troupe Le Splendid. As with such American improv teams as Second City, from which emerged Bill Murray, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd,   Le Splendid was an incubator of comic talent.  Pére Noel est une Ordure and the 1982 film helped launch the careers of Anémone, Thierry Lhermitte, Gérard Jugnot and Josiane Balasko, all Splendid regulars.

Anémone, Pére Noel est une Ordure

            SOS Détresse Amitié - SOS Friends in Distress-  is a telephone help line analogous to the Samaritans. It occupies an apartment in one of those buildings, now familiar from such films as Delicatessen and Amélie Poulain,  that exist only in Paris. To ancient wiring, unreliable plumbing, a cranky concierge and a lift prone to stalling between floors, add neighbours from hell and a varied guest list of mental cases, potential suicides, petty criminals and assorted malcontents. 

            What begins as a quiet Christmas Eve at SOS Détresse Amitié, with the office manned by fusspot Pierre (Lhermitte) and secretly adoring Thérèse (Anémone), concludes with invasions by cross-dressing Katia, Balkan refugee Preskovitch with dishes of inedible national delicacies (“kloug,each piece traditionally formed in the armpit“), trailer-trash couple Zézette (Marie-Anne Chezel) and gun-wielding Félix (Jugnot),  plus an elevator repair man who, accidentally shot, is butchered and fed to the animals in the Jardin des Plantes.   

Bruno Moynet as Peskovitch, with kloug
Pére Noel est une Ordure


            The film feels free to scorn the character of Father Christmas because he is not so familiar in France. It’s the baby Jesus who distributes gifts at holiday time, just as it isn’t the Easter Bunny who hides eggs but the bells of France’s churches which, stilled for Lent, have traditionally flown to Rome to consort with the pope. Returning home for Easter Sunday, they ecstatically strew confectionery in their wake. 

            As France has no Thanksgiving, Christmas fulfils the function of that echt-American feast, providing an opportunity for families to get together and, in the nature of families everywhere, to air grievances and bury hatchets, even if it’s in one another’s backs.  As with Thanksgiving, meals are central to this process, hence Madame Musquin (Josiane Belasko),  proprietor of SOS Détresse Amitié, spends most of her time on the phone with her sister, discussing the dinner she’s missing.  

Steve Martin, Liev Schrieber
Mixed Nuts

            No French Christmas is complete without a TV screening of  Pére Noel est une Ordure, which may have convinced Nora Ephron of inevitable success for an Americanised version. Alas,  Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn and Liev Schreiber (in his movie debut, dressed throughout in drag), failed to animate Mixed Nuts (1994).  Even Los Angeles’ Venice Beach – Eccentricity Central for the USA - can’t replicate the weirdness of suburban Paris that every Parisian takes for granted. The problem, however, lies deeper than mere milieu. Farce is heartless, a trait alien to Hollywood, which insists that a glimmer of hope and romance must exist in even the darkest tale. The French labour under no such delusion. 

NOTE: You can watch the film if you click on this streaming service.

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