Commercially successful films always set off a chain of copycat purchases among distributors – the acquisition of titles that have just enough in common with a popular movie so that they might emulate its box-office pull.
In the late '90s in Australia, the funniest buying frenzy of this sort involved the release of European films that had some vague relation to the local hit Shine (1996) – exhibiting some middlebrow mélange of stirring classical music, personal tragedy and a dysfunctional family history.
The publicity campaign for Christmas Oratorio stresses the presence of Bach on the soundtrack, and a story about love, joy and overcoming.
But be warned: the famous music mainly figures as an inessential flourish at the very start and end; and the plot is a grim, depressive, tortuous, psychologically incoherent affair.
The film traces a complex family chronicle riddled with separations, suicides, crushed dreams and psychotic episodes. In the 1930s, Solveig (Lena Endre) is an all-singing, all-dancing "life force" obviously far too gleeful for this generally miserable milieu. So director Kjell-Åke Andersson (adapting a novel by Göran Tunström) promptly kills her off, inaugurating a relentless chain of disasters and nightmares.
Solveig's husband Aron (Peter Haber) comes to live only for the letters he receives from a romantically deluded lass far away in New Zealand. Meanwhile, his son Sidner (Johan Widerberg) falls into an agonising sexual relationship with an unhinged older woman, Fanny (Viveka Seldahl) – who promptly becomes pregnant and cuts Sidner out of her life. After a spot of electro-shock therapy, Sidner decides to journey to New Zealand to find his deceased Dad's dream girl. This entire saga is pieced together in the present tense by Fanny's haunted love-child, Victor (Krister Henriksson).
Like the only other Swedish film to make an appearance in Australia in 1997, the grotesque All Things Fair (1995), Christmas Oratorio is a nasty, brutish piece of work masquerading as an art movie in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman. Four of the film's central characters rather inexplicably lose their marbles, and the resulting scenes of rape, violence, hysteria and all-round bad behaviour are offensive when they are not plain ludicrous. In particular, the movie demonises the various physical lusts of these poor souls more surely than the most judgemental Hollywood melodrama from a more conservative era.
There is nothing to recommend Christmas Oratorio. It is flat, artless, overdrawn and tiresomely histrionic. And it makes Shine look like a masterpiece by comparison – which is no small achievement.
© Adrian Martin November 1997