What makes the perfect Christmas movie?

Faced with a limited stock of seasonal classics to bring back to cinemas each December, the BFI’s Head of Distribution Margaret Deriaz ponders whether a truly special Christmas film needs to be set at Christmas at all… and provides her top 10 festive viewing favourites.

12 December 2012

By Margaret Deriaz

Babette’s Feast (1987)

People like going to the cinema at Christmas, whether alone, as a romantic date, or as a festive group outing. During the busy pre-Christmas period, it’s a chance to relax in the dark and unwind from the stresses of shopping and socialising; and once Boxing Day is behind us, the cinema offers a welcome refuge from the claustrophobia of enforced domestic confinement.

So what do filmgoers really want for Christmas? As a film distributor eager to benefit from the seasonal appetite for cinema-going, it’s a question that greatly preoccupies me. The BFI specialises in the rerelease of classic films and last year scored a considerable hit with the ever popular Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Previous Christmas releases have included The Wizard of Oz (1939), another perennial favourite, and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner (1940), a romantic comedy set in pre-war Budapest in the run-up to Christmas – less well known but a guaranteed delight.

Distributor Park Circus has done well with White Christmas (1954) and even more so with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which has more or less inscribed itself in the indispensable rituals of Christmas. But distributors are always keen to expand the cinema repertoire, if at all possible. Surely we should be able to vary the diet?

The first problem is that the number of movie classics with a proper Christmas setting is limited, and not all of them fit the bill. Christmas Holiday (1944), for example, sounds initially as if it might be just the thing. It turns out, however, to be a deliriously feel-bad film noir by Robert Siodmak, whose stars, Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, are not in musical comedy mode but cast somewhat bizarrely against type. Durbin struggles against her nice girl-next-door image to play a nightclub ‘hostess’ plunged into degradation since her husband’s arrest for murder, while Kelly is surprisingly good (but not remotely Christmassy) as her superficially charming but dangerously unstable husband.

My Night with Maud (1969)

Also set at Christmas, and complete with such seasonal trappings as Midnight Mass and winter snows, is Eric Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969), but – alas – its characters’ lengthy debates on Catholicism, Marxism and the philosophy of Blaise Pascal are not everyone’s cup of festive tea, though I myself would guzzle it by the gallon.

Given these difficulties, I fall to wondering if a Christmas setting is absolutely essential. The Wizard of Oz, set mostly in a timeless Technicolor wonderland, is surely evidence that this is not the case, while Meet Me in St. Louis, though its Christmas scenes stick in the memory, spans all four seasons of the year. What then are the key ingredients of a satisfying Christmas film?

The notion of a ‘feel-good movie’ is all too often associated with the whimsical, the sentimental and the excessively sweet – qualities more likely to make one sick than well. While the established seasonal favourites do tend to share a magical or fairytale-like quality, that doesn’t necessarily make them escapist or preclude serious engagement with real life problems. It’s a Wonderful Life centres on a smalltown family man whose sense of failure leads him to the brink of suicide. In Meet Me in St. Louis, a father threatens to disrupt his family’s idyllic existence by moving them to New York for the benefit of his career. The Shop around the Corner touches on such dark themes as loneliness, adultery, self-deception and the fear of unemployment.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): 2001 rerelease poster

As for Dorothy, she finds herself homeless when her house is uprooted in a terrible tornado and embarks on a wonderful but frequently perilous journey with three new friends, each of whom suffers from a severe lack of self-esteem. In every one of these films, the characters face adversity and emerge refreshed and revitalised with a keener, clearer perception of what really matters in life.

Like these great classics, Babette’s Feast (1987), based on a story by Isak Dinesen, does not deny the harsh and frequently disappointing realities of existence. Set on the remote, windswept coast of Jutland in 19th-century Denmark, it revolves around the fortunes of two sisters, daughters of a stern Lutheran pastor who preaches self-denial to a small, austere community of worshippers. Babette Hersand, the Frenchwoman who becomes their unpaid housekeeper, is a refugee from the Communard uprising in Paris in which both her husband and son were killed.

Nonetheless, this much loved (if recently little seen) Academy Award-winner offers the pleasures of a true winter’s tale, rich in atmosphere and beautifully told. Though there’s no explicit reference to Christmas, the film’s eponymous feast is set on a chilly 15 December (coinciding nicely with the BFI’s release date of 14 December) – and if its culminating scenes don’t help you recover a proper festive spirit, nothing will.

Acclaimed by Empire magazine as “gastro-cinema at its most sensual and intoxicating”, Babette’s Feast is certainly that but so much more besides. It returns to the big screen 25 years after it was made and will, I hope, attract new fans as well as those eager to refresh fond memories. Look no further in these darkest days of the year: here is spiritual and emotional sustenance of the most satisfying kind.

My Christmas viewing top 10

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
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