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Santa Claus is alive and well. He’s also a Frenchman who can currently be found wandering the streets of Paris in search of meds for his army of diseased elves.
Such is the premise of Alain Chabat’s Christmas & Co. (Santa & Cie), which sounds like an unwanted Gallic addition to the Bad Santa franchise but turns out to be something else: a clever holiday comedy that just about nails the right mixture of offbeat humor and Yuletide cheer.
Released wide at home for the run-up to the Noel, this family-friendly affair has held its own against Paddington 2, which opened in France on the same day. Overseas action will probably be limited to Francophonia and Europe, while U.S. viewers may find the film strays a tad too close to their beloved Miracle on 34th Street.
Fifty-nine-year-old writer, filmmaker and star Chabat got his start with the TV sketch troupe Les Nuls (the French equivalent of SNL in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s), after which he directed a string of Hollywood-style comedies, including the talking-dog flick Didier and the smart, successful blockbuster Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra. His filmography took a bit of a nosedive with the caveman sendup RRRrrr!!! and the comic book adaptation HOUBA! On the Trail of the Marsupilami, but he’s nearly found his stride again with this tongue-in-cheek contemporary fantasy.
Chabat plays Santa — and not “Pere Noel,” as he’s called in French — a rather laid-back, hippy-ish version of St. Nick who runs a successful toy manufacture and delivery enterprise in the North Pole along with his nagging wife, Wanda (Audrey Tautou). When his top elf (Bruno Sanches) falls ill with a mysterious flu, taking 92,000 fellow elves with him, Santa must find a cure before Christmas day arrives.
But his plans are thwarted when he’s forced to make an emergency landing with his sleigh (and computer-generated reindeer) atop the Moulin Rouge in the heart of Paris, where he’s quickly picked up by the police. Luckily, a kindhearted defense lawyer (Pio Marmai) and his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) take him in, much to the delight of their two young kids but not necessarily to their own personal benefit, especially when Santa trashes their apartment in his first-ever stint at babysitting.
As one can expect, lots of mayhem ensues, with Chabat dishing out gags at a decent frequency until he indulges too much in third-act shenanigans. Most memorable are the scenes revealing Santa’s inability to adapt to the modern world, such as one where the scraggly bearded weirdo tells the cops how much he “adores children.” Another running joke has him knowing everybody’s name by heart, as well as the toys they wished for when they were young, although it soon becomes clear that Santa actually has no idea how to handle kids: He’s used to them being fast asleep when he visits.
There’s lots of cute comedy here, though it’s never too cute, with a certain melancholy air hanging over things the way gray skies hang over Paris throughout December. (Indeed, the film’s one major fabrication may be the snowfall that arrives just in time for Christmas Eve.) Chabat constantly juxtaposes the humdrum reality of city life — Farahani’s character arises in the wee hours of the morning to work at a wholesale fruit market — with all the miracles that Santa brings, although Santa himself seems a bit blasé about the whole thing. Rarely does he laugh, and he never says “ho ho ho” or anything of the kind. Mostly he looks like he doesn’t want to be bothered, although he can’t help but do good in the end.
Working with a big (for France) budget of $26.5 million, Chabat doesn’t shortchange the viewer when it comes to spectacle, whether it’s the Willy Wonka-esque workshop where the elves individually handcraft toys for the entire world or the many scenes of Santa’s sleigh descending from the sky. Cinematographer Antoine Sanier (Leatherface) keeps the atmosphere engagingly moody, as if we’re watching a film noir rather than a G-rated adventure, but perhaps that’s what makes this Gallic Christmas story rather unique: It avoids the usual overdose of holiday feel-goodness while also making a convincing argument for Santa’s existence, no matter what language he speaks.
Production companies: Legende, Gaumont, Chez Wam, France 2 Cinema, Nexus Factory, uMedia
Cast: Alain Chabat, Golshifteh Farahani, Pio Marmai, Bruno Sanches, Louise Chabat, Audrey Tautou, David Marsais, Gregoire Ludig
Director, screenwriter: Alain Chabat
Producer: Ilan Goldman
Director of photography: Antoine Sanier
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreaux
Costume designer: Oliver Beriot
Editor: Gregoire Sivan
Composer: Matthieu Gonet
Casting director: Coralie Amedeo
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