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The Nightmare Before Christmas

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MOVIE REVIEW
Merry Christmas (2024)

“Merry Christmas” absolutely captures end-of-year melancholy, with its lonely lead characters surprising themselves with the sudden importance of their chance encounter. This movie deeply knows the difficulty of living with your choices and how a spur-of-the-moment impulse can shape your entire life. But while it does less well with creating a coherent and believable plot, it does an exceptional job of building a mood.

The movie has been made in Hindi and Tamil versions, which are apparently identical in plot, but some of the supporting actors are different in each language version. I saw the Hindi version so that the one being reviewed here.

In what is described as “Mumbai when it was Bombay” a man named Albert (Vijay Sethupathi) returns to his late mother’s flat after an absence of some years. It’s Christmas Eve; and he’s warmly welcomed by the neighbors, but decides to go out for dinner by himself. In the restaurant, a man who is sneaking out on his companions asks Albert to make his excuses, so Albert does, because the companions were a woman named Maria (Katrina Kaif), her young daughter, Annie (Pari Maheshwari Sharma) and Annie’s enormous teddy bear. Later the three of them, plus the teddy, end up in the same movie theater, where Annie falls asleep and Albert approaches the struggling Maria to offer to carry the teddy bear home.

As they walk back to Maria’s apartment, Maria and Albert have a lovely, flirtatious conversation, in which Maria reveals that Annie is mute; she is married; and the man from the restaurant was not her husband. The husband is off seeing his girlfriend, Maria says, so she invites Albert up for a drink. While she puts Annie to bed, Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is on the record player. Not the most obvious musical accompaniment for some ill-advised holiday adultery, but Albert has a few pleasant anticipatory minutes snooping in Maria’s busy apartment full of knickknacks while he waits. And when Maria comes back; and the audience starts wondering just how badly this is going to go wrong – well. It surely does.

The intrigue relies upon Maria’s willingness to leave Annie sleeping alone in the apartment for hours at a time, which is just about believable until the final plot twists start getting explained. Director Sriram Raghavan adapted the screenplay, with several other writers, from a French novel originally published in 1961, when such a thing might have been more ordinary in Paris, but it’s still pretty hard for modern audiences to take. Midnight mass isn’t exactly short. But even if we can accept the lack of care Maria shows her daughter; and we can accept the chainsaw Maria produces might be merely a tool instead of a weapon; Maria’s plan for the evening has involved an enormous amount of work for no guaranteed reward. But as Albert starts to realize just how much trouble he’s really in, the mood twists wonderfully, with undercurrents of dread and disbelief on top of the sexual anticipation. Madhu Neelakandan’s cinematography gives Maria’s apartment a kind of sepia tinge – the kind you might get from strings of Christmas lights – and Pooja Ladha Surti’s editing knows how to make the moments breathe. It’s this mood, the excitement of Christmas and the mystery of just precisely what evil is happening in this apartment, that is the movie’s strongest achievement.

And yet. There’s something very sour here, right from the opening shot of two blenders, one in which a huge amount of pills are crushed and in the other spices are blended before an engagement ring is dropped in. The way in which Maria’s current choices are equated with Albert’s past ones in weirdly unpleasant, in ways which cannot be discussed without spoilers, though Radhika Apte’s cameo is excellent. But it’s clear that the hero and heroine of “Merry Christmas” are not good people, though both Mr. Sengupathi and Ms. Kaif do tremendous work in making their enormous flaws believable. Their saving grace, such as it is, is they are both concerned about Annie, and each in their own (debatably successful) way trying to keep her safe and happy. Without the little girl this would have been a pure film noir. With her Albert and Maria’s motivations are much sadder and more meaningful. It’s that achievement of mood and mystery that makes “Merry Christmas” worth seeing.

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