La Bûche [Season's Beatings/The Log] (1999)

I somewhat jokingly referred to this as the anti-Love Actually after watching it, and think that would probably be a good selling line to convince American audiences to give this French dramedy a shot. In a sense, that seems accurate - like Love Actually, this follows an ensemble of characters navigating a web of relationships and emotions, but the movie is unambiguous in its assessment of long-term monogamy. Virtually every character over the age of eighteen has been unfaithful to a partner; quite literally, every romantic relationship in the film has an expiration date.

However, I now think my immediate reaction was incorrect. Despite La Bûche's pessimistic view of coupling - the movie ultimately embraces love in all its forms and does so enthusiastically. In this sense, it might be better described as a companion to Love Actually (albeit one likely to please that movie's detractors). Regardless, La Bûche is either the most cynically sweet or sweetly cynical Christmas movie I can recall, and either way, I enjoyed it immensely. So consider that a recommendation and spoiler warning before we dive into the plot (though, for what it's worth, I don't think knowing the story is going to make much of a dent in the experience of watching this one).

First, though, I should probably address the title (or more accurately titles). The movie's actual title in its country of origin is "La Bûche," which is how I'm going to refer to it. The title translates to, "The Log," and I'm seeing that title in a few places. The surface-level reference, of course, is to the Yule log, though I don't think it's a reach to suspect a few alternate meanings were also intended. Yule logs are more associated with looped recordings of fireplaces in America, so it's not too surprising they opted instead for a generic holiday-related pun reminiscent of US Christmas comedies of the era. It probably won't surprise anyone to hear I strongly prefer the original title - "Season's Beatings" makes this sound generic and built out of cheap jokes, which is about as far from the case as possible.

The plot of the movie is difficult to describe, because it's structured more like a web than a line. The film opens four days before Christmas with a funeral for a musician who's also the second husband of Yvette, the first of the film's sizeable cast of characters, the rest of whom are drawn from her extended family and their partners. The movie follows their lives through Christmas Eve as they deal with fallout from the funeral, revelations about their shared pasts, and ongoing drama connected to their love lives.

To be frank, there's too much to try and cover all of it, so I'm going to stick with some of the major moments and recurring themes. As I mentioned before, infidelity plays a big role in this - both Yvette and her first husband were cheating on each other prior to their divorce, and the same is true of their married daughter, who's secretly about to get a divorce herself. The eldest is in a long-term relationship with a married man, which becomes even more complicated when we learn both she and her lover's wife are pregnant. Their youngest daughter, meanwhile, isn't currently involved with anyone, but she almost starts up a relationship with a guy who turns out to be the secret son her father had with a mistress (which is less a problem than it initially sounded, as we also learn her "father" probably isn't actually her father).

As the movie progresses, we're given some insight into each of these characters and a surprising number of adjacent ones. The movie typically introduces these characters comedically, offering us a quick glimpse of them as archetypes, then delves in deeper offering context for how their lives have turned out. One by one, we go from seeing them as selfish liars and cheaters to suffering, imperfect human beings trying to be true to themselves and do as little damage as possible to those around them. It's notable the movie doesn't really have any villains - each and every character is presented with compassion and humanity usually missing in the genre being referenced. In addition to showing us this through the way characters react to each other, on a handful of occasions the movie also has characters address the camera directly to relay a story of a Christmas memory. Some are nice, some traumatic, and others are a mix - it's a jarring technique in a movie with an otherwise realistic tone that makes the revelations all the more impactful. 

The genre this is referencing, in case it wasn't clear, is American holiday films. Through the use of English-language classic Christmas songs and shots of decorations that mirror US tropes, this ensures the audience is thinking of just those movies, at least until the music stops or we cut away to something decidedly atypical for holiday movies. This has the obvious effect of juxtaposing holidays associated with family and faith with infidelity for both comedic and dramatic effect, but there's a lot more going on here. Coupled with both the rejection of simplistic moralizing and the embrace of characters whose archetypes we're used to seeing as the bad guys, it turns into something much more meaningful. The movie is inviting us to understand these people and reminding us those around us are always more complicated than they seem on the surface.

The movie also offers us at least one unusual perspective on the holidays through the patriarch of the family, a Russian Jewish immigrant whose fourth-wall-breaking monologue focuses on a Christmas when his family was unexpectedly fed and helped while traveling through Europe. It's a lovely moment that transforms how we see him and offers context for why Christmas would mean anything to him.

Let's talk a little more about the title. In addition to directly referencing the Yule log and a cake within the movie shaped as a Yule log, I suspect it's also intended as a phallic joke (though I'm pretty sure there are theories tying that same imagery back to the Yule log tradition itself). It also could be seen as a reference to the casket at the start of the movie, which in some ways resembles a log, as well. The death essentially fuels the story, similar to the way a burning log provides light and warmth to a room.

That may be reading a bit too much into things, but it seems plausible. It also serves as a nice transition to some thoughts I have that are almost certainly reading ideas into this that weren't intended:

Sigh. Yeah, we're going to talk about Frazer's The Golden Bough again.

I know, I know - I bring this up all the damn time. And, yes, I know James Frazer's theories are generally considered outdated. But for the purposes of understanding Christmas media, it matters less whether any of his ideas were right than how influential they were, and they definitely left a mark.

To recap, Frazer believed in an underlying myth recurring throughout human civilization in which a sacred king symbolically marries an Earth goddess and is ritually sacrificed. Although I haven't seen any indication Frazer associated this with Christmas, his work seems to have been tied to the holidays, likely due to a combination of neo-pagan interest in the winter solstice, various personifications of the New Year, and a handful of other factors.

The fact the movie opens with a funeral around the winter solstice at least fits the pattern of holiday stories that echo themes and ideas borrowed from Frazer. Likewise, the cyclical pattern of a family repeating the behavior of the past generation resembles aspects of his theory. Even the name of the matriarch, Yvette, fits the bill - the name means "yew tree," which could been seen as a connection to the Earth (and by extension Earth goddess), a reference to boughs in general, or both.

Obviously, take all that with a grain of salt. The timeline doesn't quite line up with the solstice, particularly looking at the date of death, and there are certainly less convoluted explanations for the narrative. Still, it checks enough boxes to seem plausible, so I felt it was worth including the speculation.

None of that reflects at all on the movie's quality, of course. The reasons to watch this are that it's funny, moving, and vastly different from most holiday fare. The performances are absolutely fantastic across the board, too. In short, this is a good movie, albeit one that needs a few words of warning. The first and most obvious is that it's not all appropriate for children. Unless, that is, you live in a country other than US, in which case your society isn't weirdly scandalized by acknowledging the existence of sex and therefore this is fine for any kids old enough to follow the subtitles. The other thing worth knowing about is that at times the movie almost resembles a soap opera. I don't think that's due to a lack of skill behind the camera, so much as viewers having been conditioned to associate anything that looks clear with cheap television, particularly if it's accompanied by dramatic music. Just be aware it doesn't look like a typical film, adjust expectations accordingly, and you should be fine.