Perhaps it’s the language, perhaps it’s merely the moody, world-weary, often indirect approach favored by Gallic writer-directors; but whatever the cause, French films dealing with the intricacies of family relationships usually have greater emotional resonance and complexity than American and English films on similar subjects. The latter tend to be formulaic in construction and broad in presentation; but a picture like writer Daniele Thompson’s directing debut, “La buche” (which translates roughly as “The Yule-Log,” though in slang the word can also mean “Blockhead”), takes familiar material and gives it texture, subtlety and refinement. Rather than portraying its characters in obvious strokes, it proceeds elliptically, letting us glimpse bits and pieces of their lives and encouraging us to fill in the blank spots; it makes us co-creators of the story rather than merely passive recipients of its makers’ messages. This sophisticated approach lends it a depth and richness an American studio production on a similar subject would probably lack.
The script centers on three sisters–expansive Louba (Sabine Azema), who sings in a gypsy caberet and has a long-time married lover, a real-estate agent named Gilbert (Jean-Pierre Darroussin); Sonia (Emmanuelle Beart), an upscale housewife trapped in an unhappy marriage; and Milla (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the youngest, a free-spirited cynic with a hidden romantic streak. All are reacting differently to the imminent arrival of Christmas, with Sonia planning an extravagant family gathering and the others uncomfortable at the prospect. The situation is further complicated by the death of their mother Yvette’s (Francoise Fabian) second husband, and by the illness of their father Stanislas (Claude Rich), a dour violinit who lives with Louba. Stanislas, moreover, has taken in a boarder, a young man named Joseph (Christopher Thompson), an impecunious divorcé with a tie to the family almost no one knows about.
All these figures, and a few more besides, are brought vividly to life by the fine ensemble cast; Rich and Fabian have an especially good time lending the same sort of old-timers’ zest to their relationship that Chavalier and Gingold managed in “Gigi,” though with a more serious twist. By the time “La buche” closes, you’ll still be feeling the currents that ripple among these sometimes sad, curiously real people for whom you’ve come to have real affection; and though things aren’t nicely wrapped up as they often are in films, the denouement is all the more satisfying for that. One can only hope that some Hollywood type won’t have the bright idea to do an English-language remake; the compromises that would inevitably be imposed on the material would sap its magic and, in all likelihood, replace its slightly sour charm with heavy- handed whimsy. Just leave well enough alone, and appreciate the original.