“Got invited to the Christmas party by mistake”: The Rise of the Unconventional Christmas Film

There are many certainties at Christmas. An extensive wish list that is left unfulfilled, copious amounts of mulled wine is consumed and the never-ending debate of “Is Die Hard a Christmas film?” is discussed in a ridiculous amount of detail. The long-endured debate has been discussed by fans, critics, even cast and crew from the blockbuster as they puzzle whether it is a Christmas film filled with action or if it is an action film that just so happens to be set during the festive season. One thing is for sure, it has become one of the most popular flicks to put on during the darker months as we see its inclusion among films such It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol if you’re me). It begs the question: how does a film qualify as a Christmas film? After all, Die Hard isn’t the first Christmas film where the festivities take a back seat. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is another one often watched and follows a similar trend in that it is action focused. Even the most loved seasonal family films like Home Alone and Gremlins have splashes of Christmas but again the action and plot outweighs the Christmassy elements. However, this doesn’t reduce the Christmassy feeling that these feelings bring and thus begs the question: if a family action film set at Christmas can qualify as a Christmas film, then why can’t an adult action film also fall under the same snowy umbrella? And what about films set at Christmas but don’t revolve around Christmas? Do they qualify also?

A good example of the latter would be Stanley Kubrick’s swansong Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as married couple Bill and Alice who are living the high life in New York City with their daughter, Helena. After Alice reveals her sexual fantasies to Bill, Bill sets off to find his former college friend, Nick, who he had seen earlier that evening. One thing leads to another and Bill ends up decked in a hooded cloak and Venetian mask in an affluent mansion witnessing a mass orgy taking place in every room in the house. The film is famed for this sequence which is one of the intense and terrifying scenes you can encounter in this film, purely because you don’t know anyone except Bill. It doesn’t sound very festive and yet it has become somewhat of an underdog Christmas film due to the festive season timeline and numerous decorated sets. It’s the ultimate anti-Christmas Christmas film. This film brings in the argument that you can have a very adult film, surrounded by Christmas but rejecting the values as we see this family spending the festivities apart from each other – poor Helena is stuck with the babysitter constantly. Kubrick subverts those traditional morals of the festive time and questions the concept of the Christmas film. This film is a visual and literal antithesis of It’s a Wonderful Life. Where It’s a Wonderful Life shows love, family and kindness, Eyes Wide Shut gives sex, language and violence in abundance. The only similarity the two share is that the patriarch is thankful to live and grateful for what he has but the journeys to get there couldn’t be more different.

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Where Eyes Wide Shut rejects the morals of Christmas and family values, Todd Haynes’ modern masterpiece Carol does everything it can to uphold them. Set in 1950s New York and following department store sales assistant, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Therese is an aspiring photographer, has a great social life and a boyfriend who wants to marry her and take her to Paris as soon as possible. I have written a fuller review on Carol which you can read here. Everything is wonderful, conventional and seems to have everything you could want in a traditional Christmas film. Where Carol seems to differ is the moment when Therese, geared up with a Santa hat and working her shift glances over and sees a well-dressed woman staring back to her. This woman is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the moment I just explained can only be described as love at first sight. What subsequently follows is a heart-wrenching story of two women who long to be together in a society that wishes to draw them apart. Carol has become a phenomenon in the LGBT+ film world and with good reason. It is a perfect example of a modern Christmas film. The Christmassy music, the warm colour palette and the natural way Blanchett and Mara portray the blossoming love between the women has all the makings of a classic Christmas film. In fact, I would argue that Carol the perfect example of a modern Christmas film. It keeps those traditions from earlier Christmas films but is subtly progressive at the same time.

Lastly, there are films that give the feeling of Christmas without actually presenting any festive connection. A prime example would be The Wizard of Oz (1939) which has become a regular during Christmastime for many families. The use of dreamy technicolour, traditional family morals and Judy Garland’s voice is the perfect combination for a festive treat that is perfect for those who like Christmas films and those who don’t. It’s the perfect good vs. evil story as Dorothy finds herself from black and white Kansas to the colourful land of Oz. To get back home, she has to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West with the help of the mysterious Wizard. If we are willing to include films like The Wizard of Oz to the roster of Christmas films then does that suggest that it is the tone of the film rather than the setting of the film that qualifies it? The Wizard of Oz certainly argues this. Of course what the film also has in its favour is the decades of Christmas day showing on TV since its release. It has become a staple for many families and their descendants. It would be interesting to see what modern films become the equivalent in the future.

Naturally, it will always come down to individual taste and opinion but it is interesting how the rules differ dependant on the film itself. Whether its the themes, tone or Christmas setting that decides it for you, there is a trend that sees modern films subverting the more traditional festive tropes that you see in classics like Miracle on 34th Street (1947). I think this is in part due to Die Hard sparking this debate as there is an increase in more self-aware Christmas films over the past 30 years. Regardless of whether you think that films like Eyes Wide Shut deserve a place on the list of Christmas films, it looks like unconventionality is here to stay.

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