A French Christmas Carol, With Fiery Charlotte Gainsbourg

Danièle Thompson’s La Bûche , from a screenplay by Ms. Thompson and Christopher Thompson, is the closest thing to a grown-up Christmas picture you are likely to see on the depressingly derivative winter schedule. Unexpectedly, many seasonal American pop tunes punctuate the proceedings, beginning with “Jingle Bells” and including “White Christmas” (sung in French), “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and other standards. These musical insertions provide a double irony, first in satirizing the commercialization-or Americanization-of the holiday in France, and second in providing a mocking counterpoint to the anxiety-ridden feelings of three sisters, their widowed mother and the various men in their lives who complete a cycle of desertion and betrayal. This is a French film, after all, and one would hardly expect a Gallic Hardy family gathered around a Christmas tree.

Louba (Sabine Azéma) is the oldest of the three sisters and the most cheerful and gregarious-though, as it turns out, she has the most pressing problem. She’s been impregnated in her 40′s by her lover, Gilbert (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a married real estate agent with three children and a fourth on the way. Yet he cannot live without Lourba. For her part, Lourba struggles to make ends meet by giving Russian lessons by day, and singing at night in a gypsy cabaret with a zest and fervor that belie her emotional panic.

Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart) is supposedly the most successfully established of the three sisters, with a rich husband, a purportedly model family and a townhouse in which she gives the annual Christmas party for her extended clan. She begins her preparations in October, and the grand climax is the log-shaped pastry called La Bûche Noël . In this particular year, Sonia startles us somewhat by spicing up her shopping with a brief fling with the butcher, which suggests that, in this film, no one is entirely what they seem.

Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the youngest sister, professes to hate Christmas and its attendant hysteria, but she is too lonely and traumatized from her failed relationships to cut herself off from the family completely. She is the most intellectual of the three, and the most nonconformist as she rides around Paris on her motorcycle with her cell phone in hand to coordinate her busy schedule and her job in international communications.

“Jingle Bells” has barely faded from the soundtrack when we are thrust into a funeral for the ladies’ stepfather. We never see this character, though he figures very prominently in the last-minute family revelations. All we know at the moment is that he had the comic misfortune to die in the midst of the Christmas season. The solemn ceremony is disrupted by the ringing of a cell phone, which apparently is in the coffin and will stop ringing only when the batteries are exhausted. This Buñuelian interjection of the grotesque into the sacred is not typical of the film as a whole, but it does throw the viewer off balance.

The format slips into a series of several monologues that provide back stories for all the major characters. All are Christmas memories of happier or unhappier times, and they are addressed directly to the audience, apart from the realistic space of the film. As it turns out, these apparently scattered and random recollections become parts of an intricate jigsaw puzzle that illuminates the entire family in a tableau of remembrance, regret and reconciliation.

When La Bûche was shown last year at the French Film Festival here, it was dismissed by most of the American film intelligentsia in attendance as too commercial for their tastes. I disagreed at the time, and gave up hope that it would ever be released here.

La Bûche admittedly does not blaze any new trails, but it is beautifully acted, skillfully written and directed, and expertly paced and photographed. It eloquently celebrates the poignancy of remembrance, going all the way back to the childhood memory of the Jewish grandfather (Claude Rich) who escaped occupied France with his family, fleeing to Switzerland on Christmas Day with presents and onion soup from a Christian benefactor that the old reprobate adulterer would never forget until the day he died.

We never see the Christmas party on which Sonia toils for months. Perhaps it doesn’t take place at all. What is important is that, in the preparation and the anticipation, certain truths long suppressed are brought into the open. See La Bûche -it’s a beauty.

Now They Work for Bill Murray

Charlie’s Angels , from a screenplay by Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon and John August, is not as bad as I expected, but it isn’t particularly good, either. By now everyone in North America should know that Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu have taken the roles first embodied in the 70′s by Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson, and later (and less memorably) by Cheryl Ladd, Shelley Hack and Tanya Roberts. Who can forget the widespread fetish for Ms. Fawcett’s hair? Back then, Ms. Jackson was considered the brainy one. As befits the cultural decline and fall of the American empire, none of the current Angels on display can be accused of having any brains at all.

Rumor has it that the new streamlined, high-tech Angels did not get along that well on the set, but you’d never know it from the joyous camaraderie they project. Indeed, the three Angels are most appealing when they are giggly-girlish, as if they are enjoying a joke on the Zeitgeist . They are least appealing when they pretend they understand the incomprehensibly opaque technology they are called upon to defeat. No, I take that back: They are least appealing when they insist on kick-boxing up a storm and martial-artsing against the villains. I don’t know about you, but a little kick-boxing and martial-artsing goes a long way with me.

Bill Murray makes a less avuncular and more absurdist Bosley to the three Angels than did the late David Doyle, but he is not given enough juicy lines with which to send up the whole enterprise. Where the movie has an edge over all its previous models is in its elegant array of villains, played by Sam Rockwell, Tim Curry (a false alarm), Kelly Lynch and Crispin Glover. As for the Angels themselves, the Dylan of Ms. Barrymore is the only one who projects any semblance of inner life. The Alex of Ms. Liu is all attitude, with the actress’ patented deadpan chill perfected on Ally McBeal . All that the Natalie of Ms. Diaz expresses is the soul of a boy-crazy cheerleader.

The only remaining question is how long the director of Charlie’s Angels will continue to insist he be known as “McG.” Single names are pretentious enough, but abbreviations of single names become unendurable. Leonard Goldberg, who was the executive producer of the original Charlie’s Angels and the driving force behind the remake (along with Ms. Barrymore and her assistant, Nancy Jovonen), was introduced to McG by Ms. Barrymore and did a double-take over the name.

“We were looking for someone,” said Ms. Barrymore, “who could balance the visionary style, the action, the comedy, all the colorful characters and the heart. Because this film has a heart.”

The requirements for the director would seem to tax the combined genius of F.W. Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein, but in this day and age, a director named McG, whose only previous experience was in commercials and music videos, should suffice. Suffice it to say also that I never located the heart in Charlie’s Angels .

A Marriage Is Water Under the Bridge

Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin’s The Bridge ( Un Pont Entre Deux Rives ) is derived from a screenplay by François Dupeyron, based on a story by Alain Leblanc. Since Mr. Depardieu also plays one of the major characters, the cuckolded husband Georges, we can assume that he wanted to make some point with his extraordinarily anti-macho characterization, one that left most of the critics cold.

Georges has been married to Mina (Carole Bouquet) for 15 years, and by a not-so-strange coincidence, they have a 15-year-old son, Tommy (Stanislas Crevillen). Mina frequents the local movie house with her son, but apparently never her husband. Georges has fallen on bad times with the collapse of his private contracting business. He prefers to stay home tending to his garden, and he often goes to the local bar to play cards with his cronies.

When Mina is offered a part-time job as a servant at a rich neighbor’s house, she accepts, despite the opposition of Tommy and Georges. This is the first eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation we see between Mina and Georges, and we sense that he backs down in shame from her steely gaze. From that point on, Georges is tagged as a weak, ineffectual loser, certainly a part against type for the beefy Mr. Depardieu. Stung by his marital setback, Georges gets a job on a new bridge being built, but he must spend weekdays away from home and only weekends with Mina and Tommy.

One afternoon at the theater, Mina notices that the man sitting beside her (Charles Berling) is crying like she is. Outside, he introduces himself as Matthias, an engineer. He invites her and Tommy for a drink. When Mina discovers that Matthias is the engineer building the bridge on which Georges is working, she bursts into drunken laughter, then drifts into an affair with him.

Tommy seems ambivalent about this turn of events, realizing that his parents were married only because a son was on the way. Though Georges looks massive enough to smash both Matthias and Mina, he is outmaneuvered by both, and resigns himself to losing her.

The Bridge is an interesting idea for a civilized movie that is designed to disappoint the audience’s violent expectations. Mr. Depardieu thus follows in the footsteps of the great Raimu of The Baker’s Wife and The Eternal Husband as an enabler of cuckoldry without retribution. Unfortunately, Mr. Depardieu has spent his entire career as the virile anti-Raimu, and it may be too late for him to change. Hence, there is less pathos than masochism in his performance. And Ms. Bouquet and Mr. Berling’s characters get off the hook for their blatant betrayal of a born loser.