Elena Lazic writes about French cult Christmas classic Le Pere Noel est une Ordure (1982). The film screens this Friday as part of our Club Ciné strand, showcasing the best of French Cinema at Picturehouse Central.
One of the most popular French Christmas films ever, Le Pere noel est une Ordure is nothing short of a cult classic for French audiences. Broadcast on French television every year without fail, it has become such a part of French identity that even young people today will undoubtedly know lines of dialogue by heart.
Based on a popular play and performed for the screen by the theatre company Le Splendid, the cast specialises in ensemble work bringing together all kinds of characters in farces that are at times objectionable but always funny. To give a measure of these actors’ significance in French popular culture, it’s worth mentioning that they are also behind the cult trilogy Les Bronzes and many went on to become major film stars in France. Christian Clavier – magnificent here as the heartbroken transvestite Katia – is perhaps most famous internationally for his role in smash hit Les Visiteurs (1993) alongside Jean Reno. Thierry Lhermitte meanwhile starred as the mean spirited diner host in Le Diner des Cons (1998).
The film is set in the Parisian office of a Suicide Hotline on Christmas Eve, anticipated to be one of their biggest nights of the year. It certainly proves to be a busy night, but not in the way one might expect. Such a dark premise alone sets the tone of this jet black comedy, but walking the thin line between humour and (very) bad taste is exactly what makes the best French comedies so innovative and intelligent. Volunteers Therese and Pierre at first seem focussed and dedicated to their task, readying themselves for a very intense evening of phone calls. But the klutzy pair repeatedly let themselves be distracted by their burgeoning, somehow repulsive romance. Desperate callers will suffer for it.
Somehow these impossible love birds don’t come out any worse than the other characters, who are in turn stupid, obsessive and desperate in their own way. Lowlives Felix (Gerard Jugnot) – a petty thief disguised as Santa to promote a Christmas-themed strip-tease show – and his pregnant wife Zezette (screen legend Marie-Anne Chazel) shamelessly bring their rocky and violent relationship to the offices, while bourgeois employee Madame Musquin (Josiane Balasko) remains stuck in the elevator for the entire duration of the film without anyone paying attention to her.
Therese and Pierre also get regular visits from their overbearing Bulgarian neighbour Mr Preskovitch (Bruno Moynot) who insists they taste his revolting food. An offscreen pervert (Michel Blanc) meanwhile terrorises the landline. Clavier’s Katia brings a little peace to the proceedings and things seem to go back to normal before a dark and absurdist ending.
A comedy of manners pushed to the extreme of taste, Le Pere Noel est une Ordure is intensely funny and unique, taking risks that pay off and remain fresh even 34 years after its release.
Join us at Picturehouse Central at 10pm on Friday 23 December. Book tickets.