The Advent Calendar had its UK première at FrightFest 2021
Writer/director Patrick Ridremont’s The Advent Calendar (Le Calendrier) comes frontloaded with a sense of doom. It is not just the direct-to-webcam address made by paraplegic protagonist Eva Roussel (Eugénie Derouand) at the start – but also clearly near the chronological end – of the film, warning whoever next acquires the Advent calendar to “respect the rules – if you don’t, you’ll die.” And it is not just, when Eva receives the antique wooden box as a birthday present from her best friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) and inserts the key to open its first compartment, the cutaway to a dislocated demonic puppet (Fabien Jegoudez) who has evidently been dormant and waiting for this very moment to unleash his wicked seasonal game. No, the doom first kicks in with a pair of textual quotes: one from Charles Baudelaire about the digestion of joy, both natural and artificial, requiring “the courage to swallow it”; and a second simply reading, “Dump it and I’ll kill you,” attributed to one ‘Ich.’
The gifted Advent Calendar, which in fact Sophie stole, comes from a Munich Christmas market, and the figure within, at first presented as a sinister carved pop-up and eventually becoming more embodied, is a speaker of German. Accordingly, that ‘Ich’ (the German first person pronoun) is how he refers to himself – but it is also Sigmund Freud’s term for what is commonly translated as the ‘ego’. For this calendar not only comes with strict instructions (upon threat of death for any breach) that the daily candies in its 24 compartments should (like the joys in Baudelaire’s quote) be swallowed, but also holds out the promise of a ‘Christmas miracle’ – romance, riches, and the restoration of ex-dancer Eva’s mobility – in return for a series of ever more harrowing sacrifices to be made. This impossible conflict between low desires and higher ethics is the Freudian clash of id and superego, all mediated through, precisely, the ego. In other words, Eva’s advent period is a Nativity psychodrama in which she must work through reconciling the fantasy of what she wants, the reality of what she has, and the dreadful moral give-and-take that resides in the spaces between them.
Like the titular object in Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009), this creepy calendar is a device that offers rewards but demands victims in return for egotistical desires – and so The Advent Calendar becomes a variant on the Monkey’s Paw type of narrative, in which Eva is confronted with the consequences of what she wishes for. It is also, in keeping with its season, a sort of reverse It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), showing its heroine a world from which not she, but her friends and loves ones, have been erased, and asking if it is really better. Like the Christmas calendar’s previous owner (Olivier Bonjour), Eva has a recently acquired disability which has filled her life with casual discrimination, daily frustration and lost dreams. Her paraplegia has also removed, quite literally, her ability to feel, so that in one upsetting sequence she almost sleeps through being sexually molested by unwanted suitor Boris (Cyril Garnier), only to wake up to his forceful suggestion (again instantiating the Baudelarian quote) that she digest and swallow his joy, before being dumped (as in Ich’s quote) in the street. Boris’ horrific fate will be lamented by few – but other, altogether less odious characters will also fall prey to Ich’s irrational influence, leaving Eva to wonder if the inexorable tick tick ticking of the days can somehow be reversed, even at the cost of her desire to walk and dance and feel again.
Events in The Advent Calendar might be taken at face value as supernatural, or read as entirely psychological (a throwaway line reveals that Eva is on regular doses, not unlike the daily candy from the calendar, of antipsychotic medication to counter hallucinations). Either way, this is a stylish, increasingly dreamy and disorienting portrait of a woman in crisis, caught between hopes and fears about a future cruelly severed from the past – until it seems that the best, perhaps the only, way for her to move on is to become like her demented father (Jean-François Garreaud), rooted forever to a chair and simply forgetting what she once cherished. The Advent Calendar tracks this traumatic shift to acceptance, while allowing its protagonist one last joyous dance.
strap: Patrick Ridremont’s supernatural psychodrama confronts its paraplegic protagonist with a demonic dilemma between miracle and sacrifice
© Anton Bitel