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"L'assassinat du Père Noël" opens with an act of defiance, the village school teacher Villard announces to the onlooking children that there are two ways to be successful in life, either through one's own hard work ("propre industrie") or the imbecility of others ("l'imbécillité des autres"). This is a slightly bemusing point decades later without the context that the film was released in 1941, during the German Occupation of France. It is one of those breath-taking moments you see in films of the Occupation where someone essentially risks their life to defy the Nazi death cult (another is a sotto voce mocking of the Nazi salute at the end of "L'assassin habite au 21"). Here "imbecility of others" would appear to be referring to the support of the people for the rise of popular fascism. The censors appear to have been too square to notice any of this. There is further poignancy when you realise that one of the stars of the movie, Harry Baur (as Cornusse/Santa Claus), was tortured to death by the Gestapo very shortly after this film was made.
The plot is about a snow globe village at Christmas, and you know that given the title of the film, and indeed if you were a cinema-goer at the time, from the movie posters, that Santa Claus or someone dressed as him will be murdered. Who killed him, the Baron who has mysteriously returned after many years, or one of the various "pillars of the community" we are introduced to. It is a noir film for sure, the village in claustrophobic, snowed in, the atmosphere is thick, which bits are as they seem? Is fair foul or foul fair to borrow from Monsieur Shakespeare.
It doesn't really matter whodunit, not to me anyway, and so I wasn't bothered by the quick wrap up at the end of the movie. The main theme of the film for me was truth and fantasy. The teacher Villard is a commie and a freethinker, not of the obviously deplorable kind, he has a lukewarm heart as well. But his search for the "truth", who he is the champion for is ridiculed by the events of the movie, although he is a "freethinker" his thoughts are obviously not free enough to realise that Catherine, championing fantasy, is almost completely unmoved by his wooing, and indeed that the reason for this is that they are no match at all. Perhaps the truth is like the white vermouth he habitually orders in the bar, not a particularly palatable drink. Perhaps the primary motivation for exposing the truth, is a deep-seated hatred. However the movie is even-handed, there are perils to fantasy as well, Cornusse and his cockamamie stories, for all their charm, mess with the heads of the children, as you evidenced by the bitter speech of the Baron, who heard them in his turn, and was led by them into misadventures. Catherine at one point talks of wanting a knight in shining armour husband who will kill any other man who looks at her, romantic fantasy can be pathetically cruel.
The encirclement of the police near the end of the movie is perhaps a message to the audience to hold tight, the world is coming to save us. There are hints throughout that even greater themes are lying just between the surface of the film, which plays with narrative and explores the nature of narrative (a paradoxical falsity that allows us to believe we have made sense of things) marvellously well. The two old men playing Belote may be our only gods.
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