Holiday Horror 'The Advent Calendar' Is a Gift Directed by Patrick Ridremont
Starring Eugénie Derouand, Honorine Magnier, Clément Olivieri
Published Dec 03, 2021It's a tale as old as Christmas itself: a person becomes dissatisfied with their lot in life and makes a bargain with the devil — take my soul but give me everything there is to be had, give me more than the world can give. Canonically they've been men, these wanters: Faust, in all his various iterations over the course of hundreds of years, wanted; in horror, it was Frank in Hellraiser who wanted; Keanu Reeves' Kevin Lomax in The Devil's Advocate; Reeves again in Constantine.
But with the Patrick Ridremont-penned and -directed holiday horror The Advent Calendar, we get Eva (a devastatingly beguiling Eugénie Derouand), a young woman in a wheelchair consumed with desires she didn't know she had, rejoicing at times in a way few films have ever depicted.
Endlessly interesting in the way that only allegorical tales can be, Ridremond and Derouand give us a holiday fright flirting with madness and sacrifice, alluringly asking us the lengths to which we might go to to find happiness, all as it redefines culturally traditional depictions of who is allowed to desire.
Eva used to be a professional ballerina — a successful one, too. But a car accident causes her to lose mobility below the waist, along with her career. She now works a thankless job as an insurance salesperson, surrounded by few friendly faces. The film opens on Eva's birthday at the beginning of December. Her friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) arrives from Germany with an ornate wooden advent calendar filled with technical clockwork; it chimes with a sinister, guttural cadence at midnight. The calendar comes with a set of rules (if you eat one day's candy, you have to eat all of them, there's no bailing), with each rule's violation portending death delivered by a hazy, decaying character named "Ich," the calendar's guardian.
As Eva moves through the month and the calendar's candy, she is amazed to find certain desires immediately fulfilled — a man who sexually assaults her is found dead after she screams "drop dead" at him; a boy she likes suddenly likes her back. But as the days move closer to Christmas, the calendar begins asking for certain kinds of sacrifices, teasing Eva with the promise of mobility in her legs. The calendar, ultimately, asks Eva what she is willing to do to regain her old life of ebullient success, all as viewers watch in rapt pleasure and eerily concomitant revulsion as Eva works to achieve her desires.
It's verboten for a woman to want, to desire, to the detriment of her friends and family; women ought to be self-sacrificing, culture usually tells us. Even in something like Rosemary's Baby, you have the solicitous husband making a pact with devil worshippers, with Rosemary almost resigning to her role as mother to the spawn of Satan out of maternal duty. But in The Advent Calendar, Ridremont delivers a female character coming from a place of profound loneliness — brought on by societal aversion to differently-abled bodies — and actively desiring her old life back, despite the fact that this desire is impossible to fulfill, or that its articulation is taboo. A part of the film's horror seems to stem from the luridness of Eva's desire to be able to walk again, natural though it is (a person cannot escape mourning the death of their past self), stems from the simple fact of her many desires. But even so, Ridremont escapes making Eva a ridiculous character, instead making her deeply sympathetic, even as she is at times frightening. Eva isn't a female character transplanted onto a masculine, Faustian blueprint. Eva does deeply reprehensible things to achieve her goal and this is what makes her endlessly compelling.
The well-written script successfully allows Eva a fullness, the heft of a storied life that is unapologetically feminine, showing that it's from her existence as a woman that her desires stem — so that even though she might want morally reprehensible things, it makes sense that she does want them at all. There is a scene later in the film in which Eva has to fulfill one of Ich's demands, but it is very difficult for Eva to do; in this scene, Derouand as Eva isn't a soulless agent following orders. Rather, Derouand depicts Eva as crestfallen. You can see heartbreak and determination flicker in her eyes, every bit of her soul fighting against the act she is about to perform in the tears that stream down her face.
Ultimately, Ridremont has written a stellar female lead who Derouand portrays with strong vulnerability and perfect fallibility. The Advent Calendar is a great horror to watch this holiday season because it doesn't condemn any one of our desires that may arise as we break bread — we're all human, the film seems to say, maniacally. It reminds us that, if we were in Eva's place, we wouldn't have acted any differently; like any good horror, The Advent Calendar succeeds in showing us that the sublime is always close to lapsing into the grotesque. The Advent Calendar is a devilishly delightful Christmas horror that satisfies desires we didn't know we had scratching beneath the surface of our gingerbread-crumb-coated skin. (Shudder)