La Bûche

             It is a given that the holiday season is one of the most stressful times
     of the year, especially having to cope with familial duties, the hustle and
     bustle of shopping for presents and food, and the intense preparation of the
     perfect meal. In the USA, we tend to think we have a monopoly on that kind
     of stress, but as screenwriter Danièle Thompson proves in her directorial
     debut, the sentiments are universal.

             Taking its title from the traditional buttercream frosted Christmas cake
     decorated like a log,
La Bûche centers on what can only nicely be termed a
     dysfunctional family. The parents, Stanislas (Claude Rich), a sickly violinist
     of Jewish descent, and Yvette (Françoise Fabian), a retired actress, are
     divorced. Their three daughters all have problems of their own.
     Forty-something Louba (Sabine Azéma) sings traditional songs in a Russian
     restaurant and finds herself pregnant by her married lover (Jean-Pierre
     Darroussin) who keeps promising to leave his wife but doesn't. Middle child
     Sonia (Emmanuelle Béart) appears to have it all, with a beautiful house,
     two children and a wealthy husband, but despite her Martha Stewart-like
     veneer, her life is falling apart. The baby of the bunch, computer expert
     Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg), resents the holidays preferring to wallow in
     what Sonia terms a "hostile holiday depression." Added to the mix is
     Stanislas' new tenant, Joseph (Christopher Thompson, the director's son
     and the co-author of the screenplay), who also is undergoing his own
     familial crisis: he has separated from his wife who has had a child by
     another man.

             Beginning with the funeral of Yvette's second husband a few days
     before Christmas and concluding four days later on Christmas Eve,
La Bûche
     is a warmly comic look at the foibles of human nature. Thompson occasionally
     opts to have some characters address the camera directly while delivering
     monologues that give the film an added theatrical flair. While the device is
     jarring, it doesn't hurt the flow of the story.

             The true joy of the film is in the performances. As the curmudgeonly
     Stanislas, Rich is terrific and he and Fabian share a beautifully rendered
     reunion scene that encapsulates their character's shared histories. Azéma is
     fine as the cabaret performer who figures out one of the family secrets while
     Béart makes the seemingly shallow and spoiled Sonia palatable. Gainsbourg
     (who resembles a young Margaret Hamilton) delivers an exceptionally fine
     turn as the moody Milla while Christopher Thompson excels as the mysterious

             Danièle Thompson's direction is fine, although she fails to establish a
     unified visual approach to the material. The movie begins with a witty credit
     sequence filled with holiday decorations and crowded streets but in later
     scenes the editing and cinematography sometimes undermine the scene's
     intentions, partly due to the ensemble nature of the film. In attempting
     to give equal time to each of the major characters, Thompson sometimes
     cuts away too soon or allows a sequence to go on too long. She does,
     however, use the music on the soundtrack quite well, employing Michel
     Legrand's original score interspersed with classic Christmas songs as well
     as traditional Yiddish tunes. For a first-time directorial effort,
La Bûche has
     a great deal to offer particularly in its fine performances.

                                     Rating:                B+
                                     MPAA Rating:       NONE
                                     Running time:      106 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.