The holidays mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a time of deep spirituality and tradition. For others, it’s about gathering with family and friends. Then there are those who flee the chaos for solitude in exotic locales. Whatever your holiday rituals, what Francophile doesn’t relish cuddling up on the couch with a cup of cocoa or un verre de vin (or a splash of bourbon, perhaps?) to watch a Christmas flick à la Française? The good news is there are some pretty good ones—the French are serious about their cinema—even those that involve ludicrous gifts, heartwarming traditions, and buches de Noël. I’ve shaved down the list to eliminate those I deemed too depressing, cheesy, or ridiculous. Voici a short list that should pump up your (French) Christmas cheer.
Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), directed by Arnaud Desplechin (2008)
The dysfunctional-family-does-Christmas flick is a holiday staple (think: The Family Stone, Pieces of April, Home Alone), and no one does dysfunction—and smart dialogue, and gorgeous, messy life!—like Desplechin. Featuring an all-star cast, Catherine Deneuve plays the matriarch forcing her children together for the first time in years, even though no one can stand her son Henry (Mathieu Amalric). Also starring Deneuve’s real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, Desplechin regular, Emmanuelle Devos, and Melvil Poupaud. The film was nominated for nine César awards, with Jean-Paul Roussillon winning the award for best supporting actor.
Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes), directed by Jean Eustache (1967)
The first film by The Mother and the Whore director, Jean Eustache, running at a lean 50 minutes, stars New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows) as a broke guy in desperate need of a coat, who angles to earn some cash dressing up as Santa to pose for pictures. Fun fact: the movie was made with film stock left over from Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, a movie with a similar edgy hipster vibe that also stars Léaud.
Sadly, the film is not currently available to stream. But you can watch the entire thing on the above link.
Le père Noël est une Ordure (Santa Stinks), directed by Jean-Marie Poiré (1982)
This raucous and irreverent cult classic has long been considered one France’s funniest movies. It centers on Pierre (Thierry Lhermitte) and Thérèse (Anémone), two neurotic volunteers stuck with the Christmas Eve shift at a suicide hotline. At one point they are forced to deal with a pregnant woman (Marie-Anne Chazel) fleeing her abusive fiancé (Gérard Jugnot), who shows up with a Santa suit and a gun. Other wacky characters also turn this into a full-fledged holiday fiasco. In 1994, Nora Ephron directed an American remake, Mixed Nuts, starring Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, Madeline Kahn, Liev Schreiber, and Adam Sandler.
Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), directed by Christian Carion (2005)
It’s 1914. World War I is raging. Then, Scottish, French, and German troops in the trenches agree to lay down their weapons and call a one-day truce for Christmas. The men play soccer and share chocolate, champagne, singing, and family photos, only to return to battle when Christmas ends. While many critics considered the film sentimental, others praised its realistic portrayal of the horrors of entrenched warfare. Based on a true story, the film stars Diane Krüger, Daniel Brühl and Benno Fürmann and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
La bûche (Season’s Beatings), directed by Danièle Thompson (1999)
Thompson is the queen of ensemble films that surprise and move without going sickly sweet & sentimental. Here, Yvette’s (Françoise Fabian) adult daughters—Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart), Louba (Sabine Azéma) and Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—gather with their mother for Christmas following her husband’s death. Each is dealing with challenges of her own: a pregnancy, a faltering marriage, unrequited yearnings. Then there’s their dad (Claude Rich), a gypsy violinist whom Yvette divorced 25 years earlier. The result is Christmas family dysfunction at its messiest, sexiest, and most purely Français. Charlotte Gainsbourg won the César for best supporting actress.
Buy the DVD on Amazon.
Santa’s Apprentice (L’apprenti Père Noël), directed by Luc Vinciguerra and Paulette Victor-Lifton (2010)
One for the kiddos. In this animated heartwarmer, it’s time for Santa to start training his successor who, according to the rules, must be an orphan named Nicholas who has a pure heart. The reluctant winner drags his feet along a journey that includes terrifying sleigh rides, elf shenanigans, cuddly cute animal kisses, and a whole lot of Christmas magic.
8 Women (8 Femmes), directed by François Ozon (2002)
It’s a Christmas murder mystery that’s also a musical! With a stunning cast that includes Catherine Deneuve, Isabel Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen and Danielle Darrieux! Eight women gather in a sprawling mansion in the middle of nowhere for the holidays. When the man of the house is found dead in his bed with a knife in his back, everyone’s a suspect. Deliciously, the festivities are masterminded by the king of camp, François Ozon. What’s not to love?
Buy on Amazon.
In Paris (Dans Paris), directed by Christophe Honoré (2006)
In this New Wave-inspired gem, Paul (Romain Duris) moves back in with his divorced father (Guy Marchand) and younger brother Jonathan (Louis Garrel) after breaking up with his girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss) just before Christmas. He spends his days moldering in bed, reliving good, bad and twisted moments with Anna—and wanting to die. Jonathan tries to drag his big brother out of the darkness that has swallowed him whole and, the rest of the time, seduces a string of lovelies all over Paris, the dazzling city he dives into headfirst. While not your typically heartwarming family Christmas tale, this is, as the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis describes it, “a story of love between brothers who are a study in contrasts — light and dark, delight and despair, hope and its absence…Dans Paris is very much also about that glorious, fizzy, enlivening flashpoint when you think love might have struck, and that crushing, seemingly bottomless moment when you know it has left the room for good.” Not a bad place to go when you need a break from the relentless Christmas cheer.
Buy the DVD on Amazon.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex & the movies column for IFC, and a horror screenplay for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY, and the Boston Globe.