' ' Cinema Romantico: White Reindeer

Thursday, December 19, 2013

White Reindeer

One of my most enduring memories is a sliver of a mental image from the earliest part of my childhood, perhaps pre pre-school, so early that I was still a devout believer in Santa Claus. This is crucial because the mental image is of my bedroom door, cracked ever so slightly, on Christmas Eve, staring at it all night long, never sleeping, though of course I must have, simultaneously delighted because a jolly round man in a red suit was about to enter my home and terrified because a jolly round man in a red suit was about to enter my home. In that moment of that memory, Santa was real, and I suspect I hold onto it because it reminds me of an incorruptibility that you cannot fathom nor appreciate when actually living through it.

Zach Clarke’s “White Reindeer”, a film born of modesty, modest budget and modest sets, is a complicated, fascinating and altogether brilliant deconstruction of both the Christmas spirit and season. Nothing here is not on purpose, from the garish snowflake sweaters that pop up on character after character to the downed quarts of eggnog that induce sickness to several scenes set at Macy’s, the venerable American institution that more or less established St. Nick’s place in the culture as a means of, quoting Mary Lisa Gavenas, “snaring more Christmas shoppers.” Thus, in one striking montage Clarke has Anna Margaret Hollyman and her band of merry women go straight Bling Ring on Rowland H. Macy’s empire. To heck with ole Santa Claus.

And yet the film itself starts so innocently, nestled all snug in its bed. Suzanne (Hollyman) is a seemingly put-together realtor in Virginia, married to a minor local celebrity, a weatherman, who has just landed a job in postcard Hawaii. The opening credits are punched up with Christmas carols as Suzanne attends to gift shopping, picking out a tree, an embodiment of the holiday spirit. Then she returns home to find her husband shot dead in the entryway. Her holiday spirit is extinguished, and she begins a forlorn, mundanely exotic quest akin to so many Christmastime characters – re-examining the past, confronting the present, steeling for the future.

Her husband harbored requisite secrets, and while this understandably bums Suzanne out it does not necessarily pique her anger. Rather she is overcome by a moribund curiosity, a desire to know the man she merely thought she knew. So, like a child coming to terms with assorted yuletide myths, she finds herself in a state of shock, her belief in the magic of life shattered.

To be clear, “White Reindeer” takes more than a few weird turns, equal parts lewd and unsettling. It might make the faint of heart flee, but I think it’s necessary. And I think it’s necessary because in its own way it undercuts that enthusiastic innocence Suzanne feels toward Christmas. Strung-up lights on the roof and plastic reindeer in the front yard only work to mask what really goes on in every hearth and home - the wassail is spiked and online shopping brings no everlasting joy.

And that is what makes Clarke’s film an astounding achievement, how in the midst of such subversion he creates a film that still finds warmth and a willingness to believe. That is a tricky balancing act, one many films with greater pedigrees do not possess the resolve to even attempt, and in managing it Clarke has made one of the best films of the year. Suzanne is not a miser like Scrooge, but more in the vein of an Internet-era George Bailey, her faith tested but upheld, carving out meaning in a cul-de-sac gone loopy.

Perhaps the single most startlingly unique sequence in a film this year occurs when Suzanne has essentially locked herself in the bathroom at a neighbor’s, uh, shall we say, soiree. One half of the neighbor couple, Patti (Lydia Hyslop), enters, sits on the edge of the tub, and Suzanne confides. I will not reveal the precise context but, suffice it to say, the context is everything, and when Patti offers the refrain “Christmas is whatever you want it to be”, it is remarkable to note how this moment becomes everything at once. It is lovely and cathartic and absolutely absurd, and while P.C. groups and hardened attenders of Christmas Eve Mass may staunchly refute my diagnosis that this woman in this situation in this movie dressed like that could evoke the true reason for the season, so be it. She does.

“White Reindeer” is exceptionally naughty around the edges but centrally nice, a stark commentary, a darkly hilarious comedy ("Autumn is my stripper name, my real name's Fantasia") but, above all, an expressive and gleefully untraditional dramatization of a few words we hear sung near the end: “God and sinners reconciled.”

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