Robert L. May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward Co., was often taunted and teased as a young boy for being shy, small and slight. That difficult childhood prompted May in 1939 to write a poem about an ostracized reindeer with a shiny red nose who helped guide Santa's sleigh one foggy Christmas Eve. May's poem was handed out for free to Montgomery Ward customers, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born.
America has shaped a lot of our contemporary Christmas imagery, from Rudolph to the first illustrations of an overweight and rosy-cheeked Santa Claus to, just last week, the record-breaking rush of Black Friday sales. Nothing against those symbols of the season, but there's more out there. These five foreign movies offer a different perspective on the holidays, including two unusual new takes on the origin of Santa. They may not replace your annual viewing of the classic Rankin/Bass animated Rudolph TV special, but they at least tap into—or manipulate—the same Christmas spirit.
Joyeux Noel (2005)
This critically acclaimed French film chronicles a ceasefire that actually took place on Christmas Eve, 1914, along the front lines of World War I. In the movie's version of events, the temporary truce begins when a German opera singer turned soldier is reunited with his lover, a foxy Danish singer sent to entertain the troops. The two break into "Silent Night" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" on the battlefield, and are close enough for the allied forces to listen. Despite the immense bloodshed that preceded the impromptu concert, the soldiers share a moment of peace and beauty, and lay down their arms. Director Christian Carion does a solid job earning goose-bump scenes like this one and juxtaposing them with the brutal reality of trench warfare. It's little wonder why Joyeux Noel was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in the best foreign film category.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
It's hard to know where to start in describing this wicked twist on a holiday film. Perhaps it's important to note that it's actually a horror flick. And "Santa" is decidedly not the jolly type, but a scraggily "wild Santa" that comes from Finnish director Jalmari Helander's bizarre back story of men hunting the creatures and illegally trafficking them. (He's actually made two short films about hunting wild Santas, both of which went viral and led to the making of Rare Exports, Helander's first feature film.)
The feature is as well made as it is weird. A young boy named Pietari, who happens to look strikingly like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, lives on a reindeer ranch. He and his friend have noticed a crew of Americans blasting away at a nearby mountain, and Pietari is convinced the work is somehow related to an old legend of monsters being frozen and stashed at that location. The rest plays out like The Thing, but only if the thawing monster is an evil wild Santa. And it's Christmas Eve.
There's more—like the bit about dead reindeers—but know this: Every time the Indy publishes one of these themed DVD roundups one movie comes out of nowhere to become an instant favorite. This is it.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
This A Christmas Tale brings us back to traditional holiday fare. A dysfunctional French family learns that its matriarch, Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve), is dying of cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant. Her plight forces everyone to come together for the holiday, and director Arnaud Desplechin takes more than two hours to artfully unpack all the emotional baggage they bring. It's not as maudlin as the plot suggests, and strong performances, including one by Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as one of Vuillard's children, make it feel shorter than it is.
La Buche (1999)
The French certainly put out a ton of dramatic holiday films. This one also deals with family dynamics and death. Here, three sisters learn just days before Christmas that their stepfather has died. More inconvenienced than inconsolable, they join their mother at the funeral and proceed to suffer through an awkward holiday together. The daughters have enough skeletons in their closets to keep things interesting, especially the sibling played by Emmanuelle Béart. American audiences may recognize the pouty-lipped Béart from her role opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.
Christmas Story (2007)
Not to be confused with the American classic with a similar name, nor that other Finnish film that deals with the origins of Santa, this feel-good Finnish tale tells how an orphan named Nikolas eventually becomes Santa Claus. Nikolas lives in a northern Finnish village and, after his parents die, the villagers aren't sure who should care for him. They decide to simply pass him around, with a new family taking him in every Christmas. As a modest thank you, Nikolas decides to carve each host a small toy and secretly leave it for them on Christmas Day. Director Juha Wuolijoki shot the film on location in Finnish Lapland, providing a gorgeous backdrop to a creative story with tons of heart. Traditionalists looking to bask in the magic of the season will enjoy this one the most—probably because it has fewer dead reindeer than Rare Exports.