Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
I am not a fan of the Christmas season, in general. Carols make me want to tear my ears off, blue LED lights do more to contribute to auto accidents than celebrate anything, etc. So it’s rare that I find a Christmas-related movie that really works for me (and, let’s face it, It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie by convention and set decoration more than subject matter). But man, you throw a little Krampus into the mix and I’m there with brass knobs on. I’d heard wonderful things about Rare Exports for years before I actually sat down and watched the blessed thing, and now I have no idea why I resisted. It lives up to everything I’d heard and then some.
Plot: towards the beginning of December, a mining corporation unearths an ice-bound Santa Claus while drilling for something entirely unrelated. An amazing discovery! Well, not if you happen to live in the surrounding area; in the days leading up to Christmas, local children start to disappear. Of course, this being a fairy tale, the first people to understand what’s really going on—that Santa’s elves are taking the children and preparing them for some sort of ritual to free their leader—are two teenagers, Pietari (Last Cowboy Standing‘s Onni Tommila) and his best friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää, who appeared with Tommila in LCS as well). Pietari puts it all together, and while Juuso is initially skeptical, he eventually starts coming around…and then disappears. With no one left to turn to, Pietari tries the adults around him, starting with his father, Rauno (Tommila’s real-life father Jorma, recently of The Visitor). Lather, rinse, repeat.
There is something, seemingly, inherently magical about fairy tales told from the perspective of a child. (Contrast this, for example, with 2012’s Black Forest, in which all of the protagonists are adults; while this isn’t the only flaw in Black Forest, it’s a big one.) Is it the ability of movies like this to tap into the atavisms we have left in our heads from our own childhoods, no matter how far we might have repressed them? I think that’s a big part of it, along with a return to a simpler mindset, where we allow ourselves to believe things we normally wouldn’t. It’s a way of hooking into the audience immediately, and giving us a kid like Pietari, smart, something of an introvert, strained relationship with his father, and as long as you make the kid at least marginally likable and three-dimensional enough, you’ve automatically connected with your audience. And Helander, who also wrote the script, did shortcut us a little; Pietari is interchangeable with the teen protagonists of any number of recent movies with teen protagonists. I was okay with that, though, because Helander treats him like an archetype, not a stereotype. Pietari is a three-dimensional character who gives us realistic reactions to very unrealistic situations, and that’s good enough for me. Helander also understand how to balance the realism of his setting, which is rural (with all that that entails—yes, it’s elves vs. rednecks), with the ridiculousness of his plotline, and at no time does he ever stray too far into one realm or the other; this is huge for suspension of disbelief. And I have to admit, as someone who has his problems with Christmas, I was chortling with sadistic glee throughout most of the final third of the film (about which, obviously, I can’t say much without major spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me here). Oh, that reminds me. Helander tried, and succeeded, at something that I have come to understand is very difficult—the false ending. You know the one, where the director give you a resolution, then yells, “PSYCH! You’ve got fifteen more minutes of movie!” Usually it’s just annoying, but some directors do it so well you just can’t help but be wowed. (Béla Tarr does it three times in The Turin Horse. It’s ridiculous.) Helander falls into the latter category with this one. Obviously I can’t tell you how or why. It’s just another reason you have got to watch this movie, and the sooner the better. If it isn’t the best Christmas movie ever made, it’s somewhere in the top three. **** ½
Official Engsubbed trailer.