Christmas movies tend to be sweet little bonbons, rich with easy sentiment and warmth. But nestled among the sugarplums lie a few delicious poison apples, stories that shrug off cozy comfort and evoke all the winter bleakness lurking in our brightly-lit celebrations.
There’s nothing like The Lion in Winter (1968) to make your own family gatherings look harmonious. It’s Christmas of 1183 when Henry II (Peter O’Toole) calls the Plantagenets to Chinon. With his heir and favored scion dead, the king sets the younger sons to squabble for the throne, for his mistress, and for his scant affections. To his wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn in an Oscar-winning role), summoned from her palace prison for the holiday, he proposes a bitter exchange: her freedom for all the Aquitaine. Merry Christmas!
This is no gussied-up Renaissance Faire costume drama. Clad in rough robes and tunics, the sovereigns assemble, split, and reassemble their factions in looming halls of stone as cold and grubby as their schemes. King and queen goad each other with a heady blend of venom, passion, wit, and a tacit understanding, both empathetic and strategic, of the isolation conferred by power. Under The Lion in Winter’s imperial ambitions and dreadful maneuvers lies a homespun notion: no one knows you so well – or can undo you so thoroughly – as family.
Ugh, family, right? It’s Christmastime in the highly artificial, diminished New York City of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) has it all: lovely wife and daughter, lavish apartment, thriving practice, grateful (and powerful) patients. But it’s not enough. One conversation with his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) is all it takes to rock his snug complacency and send him on a fruitless sexual odyssey through every social stratum in the city.
What’s world-shaking revelation prompts Bill’s dark and barren jaunt? Alice reveals that she has a potent interior sexual life, just as if she were a real person!
Okay, it’s a little harsher than that. Bill pompously instructs Alice (who is, y’know, a woman) on the limited erotic horizons of women, who are biologically driven not by libido or passion but by commitment and security. “Women don’t…,” he stammers, “… they basically just don’t … think like that.” Thanks for the insight into our sexual psychology, Dr. Harford! Alice, stoned and frustrated, shrieks laughter at his smug certainty before relating a long-ago fantasy of trading her comfortable home life for a carnal fling.
Before Bill can absorb this, he’s called out on a medical emergency, where the patient’s daughter unwittingly reinforces Alice’s sentiment. Shattered by the alarming news that women possess (and are possessed by) urgent appetites and agency, Bill heads into the night on an increasingly bizarre search for a sexual transaction he can control. Over and over, Bill tries and fails to consummate his desire – not for sex, but for complete social dominance of a sexual object.
Not everything can be reduced to a transaction. The outside world cannot be controlled, contained, kept at an arm’s length. From its first scene, The Conversation (1974) meditates on distance. Everything distorts our perception: San Francisco’s Union Square foreshortened by a high-angle shot, reverb that mangles competing buskers’ songs, a mime aping passers-by with staggering gait and exaggerated grin, and the disjointed conversation of a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) weaving through the chattering crowd. We can listen, but we can’t understand.
Surveillance artist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) embraces that obscurity, or so he says. “I don’t care what they’re talking about. I just want a nice fat recording.” I say surveillance artist and not surveillance expert because, despite his denials, Harry isn’t just documenting conversations; he’s creating them. Meticulously revisiting tapes, photos, and his own flimsy, frangible memories of the surveillance session, Harry constructs meaning, pulling words from obscurity, shaping their nuances to echo his expectations… and, even as we watch him spin his solitary obsession into a familiar narrative, we fall into the same trap. All Harry wants for Christmas is his privacy. But he won’t get it.
In the dystopian near-future (well, now the near-past) of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), privacy is obsolete. With consumerism a bonafide religion, the bourgeoisie exchange an endless stream of identical, useless “executive gifts” and pursue empty pleasures to distract themselves from the grim tyranny of the state, but the only thing Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) wants for Christmas is the girl of his dreams.
During his days at the cavernous Department of Records, Sam keeps his head down and keeps business – the business of torture and intimidation – ticking along nicely. By night, he dreams of heroic skyscapes where he flies through clouds on majestic wings as an unknown woman (Kim Greist) urges him on to her rescue. When he glimpses the face of his dreams on a surveillance screen, Sam dedicates himself to tracking down the mysterious stranger, whatever the cost to his comfort – or hers.
For an outsider, a stranger can be the best companion and the best comfort. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), Joe Turner (Robert Redford), a bookish pop-culture analyst for a cozy little offshoot of the CIA, keeps the world at an affable, studied distance. He’s the quintessential ‘70s anti-hero, a raffishly handsome know-it-all who flouts protocol and follows his hunches. (“What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules!” – The Simpsons)
When he returns from lunch to find the entire office assassinated, Joe – so green he can barely stammer out his code name, Condor – descends from modish diffidence into Cold War paranoia. It’s post-Nixon America in a nutshell: he doesn’t know who to trust because there isn’t anyone to trust. Armed with the receptionist’s pistol and an encyclopedic array of pulp-crime tactics, our plucky scholar abducts a lone woman off the bustling Christmas streets of New York and holes up in her apartment for a few hours’ rest.
His hostage, Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) is another outsider, summed up by the photography Joe admires on her apartment walls: empty streets and leafless trees, haunting images of the cold, bleak days between autumn and winter. So we’re not surprised when she first falls for her captor (cementing the creepy-dude fallacy that women love being creeped on, but only by handsome men) and then falls in with his cobbled-up plan for survival. For these two disaffected discontents, a fleeting moment of connection with a stranger is all the comfort they can grasp, and maybe all the comfort they can bear.
And no matter how you feel about the holiday season, that’s something to treasure in these dark winter days and nights: a little comfort, a bit of connection, and maybe the joy of knowing you’re understood, if only for a moment, if only by a movie.
Emily L. Stephens is a freelance writer, archaeology student, and caterer from Portland, Maine. She writes for The A.V. Club, blogs at macbebekin, tweets as @emilyorelse, and is a founding contributor to The VideoReport.