3.5 out of 5 stars

The season for arguing about what’s classed as a Christmas movie is fully upon us, and Patrick Ridremont’s The Advent Calendar / Le Calendrier falls indisputably into that category—not only by being set in the days leading up to 25th December and by placing a familiar piece of Christmas paraphernalia at the heart of its dark tale, but also in asking just how far we’ll go to get the gift we really, really want. 

The writer-director achieves this with wit, perception, and compassion (at least for some of his characters), while also offering up a feast of cheerful slaughter. In its combination of gory mayhem with possible redemption, The Advent Calendar may be the most accurate encapsulation of the contemporary Christmas spirit since, say, Die Hard (1988).

Eva (Eugénie Derouand) is a young Belgian former professional ballet dancer who\s been paraplegic since a car accident, and now works in an insurance company where her grumpy, sexist, disablist boss (Jérôme Paquatte) is one of many who seem to see the disability more than the person. He calls her a “half-chick on wheels”.

Then, early one December, Eva’s friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) brings back from Germany a wooden Advent calendar as a gift. It’s an unusual one, to put it mildly, as the instructions include the warning “dump it and I’ll kill you.” Before long it’s clear the calendar’s peculiarity goes further than its repeated nag “midnight is here, open the door.” When she discovers her father’s favourite chocolate inside of its little nooks, he promptly phones her up to chat, despite his being cut off from the world with Alzheimer’s and the landline phone itself being off the network. 

And still it’s only early December. As the days of the month count down on-screen, Eva finds the calendar—and the sinister being called only Ich (I) associated with it—displaying more and more power, and more and more viciousness too. Consider, for example, the fate of the obnoxious Boris (Cyril Garnier). After he sexually assaults Eva and leaves her lying on the sidewalk, she says “drop dead”, and back at her home a model of his car rolls out of the Advent calendar, soon to be grabbed by her dog, and… well, you can guess it doesn’t end well for Boris.

But will it end well for Eva? She grows progressively more obsessed by the calendar and enters into a kind of Faustian pact with it. She can use it to dispose of her enemies, and even bring an end to her disability, but only at the cost of her own humanity. In a brief but brilliantly horrible sequence, Eva tortures and kills another of her tormenters by manipulating a doll, starting with its hair, while in another an erectile dysfunction pill clearly works all too well.

Some of the calendar’s activities are less grotesque. At one point Eva seems to jump forward in time by several days (a rather obvious trick on the part of the filmmakers to keep the film’s length down). A love pill given to Eva by the calendar works wonders on a young man. And Eva makes hundreds of thousands of Euro via a day-trading app (rather implausibly even by the standards of haunted Advent calendars, since she doesn’t seem to have to actually do anything with the app—did the calendar rewrite the code too?).

Mostly, though, things just get bloodier and bloodier. But Ridremont’s script never once indulges in gore for the sake of it. It’s always in the interest of developing Eva’s troubling situation and the wry undertones, especially in characterisations, remind us this is more fable than a scary story.

The Advent Calendar offers the expected warning against the single-minded pursuit of Christmas gifts, and ultimately (it’s not completely clear) Eva may be taught a lesson reminiscent of Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol, but the film also puts an additional and original twist on this. The dilemma presented to her by the monstrous Ich is, essentially, that she herself has to choose whether she’s willing to be defined by her disability (as others define her), in the sense of sacrificing everything she values in order to be freed from it.

That none of this ever seems excessively heavy or over-laboured is a tribute not only to Ridremont’s writing but also to several competent performances, notably by Derouand as the convincingly conflicted Eva, Magnier as the man-chasing Sophie, Clément Olivieri as a nurse who befriends Eva, and Janis Abrikh as another young man on her side.

Some of the minor roles are entertaining caricatures of human awfulness, notably Paquatte as Eva’s boss, Laura Presgurvic as her condescending new work colleague (“I think you’re really brave” to come to the office in a wheelchair, she says), and Isabelle Tanakil (Stillwater) as Eva’s dreadful, covetous stepmother. But Ridremont draws his main characters with more subtlety and sensitivity. Though Magnier’s Sophie is a voracious man-hunter, she’s also generous and concerned enough to take Eva along on a weekend with her latest conquest; and although Abrikh’s Antoine initially seems to lose interest in chatting up Eva when he learns she’s in a wheelchair, he soon regains it.

Visually, much of The Advent Calendar is unshowy and snappy editing moves it along well, but Ridremont and the director of photography Danny Elsen (who also worked on the writer-director’s 2012 feature debut Dead Man Talking) inject some visual distortions and colour manipulation to heighten the mood of oddness—especially around the calendar itself.

Some early glimpses of Ich are highly effective, though it might’ve been better to avoid showing him for an extended period. Whether he actually lives inside the calendar or merely hangs around it waiting for an opportunity to ruin Christmases is also never made clear, with different scenes pointing to different conclusions.

Still, it’s self-evidently not the kind of film we’re expected to take too literally. And indeed Ich isn’t really the point of The Advent Calendar. Unlike many movies where a possessed object (be it a house or a book or anything else) comes into a character’s world, the focus here is squarely on the way their life is transformed and the way they deal with it—or don’t.

The inexplicable Ich doesn’t need any explaining. He’s just as random as the car crash which left Eva paraplegic, and despite the ghoulishly entertaining deaths which his presence brings about, it’s the way that The Advent Calendar explores the dilemmas and relationships of the living which lifts it at least a notch above the average.

FRANCE • BELGIUM | 2021 | 104 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Patrick Ridremont.
starring: Eugénie Derouand, Honorine Magnier, Clément Olivieri & Janis Abrikh.