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Christmas at TFE: "While You Were Sleeping"

Team Experience will be discussing their favorite holiday films! First up is Chris Feil...

One part of the tradition of revisiting Christmas classics this time of year is debating whether or not a film technically qualifies as a “Christmas movie”. These perceptions sometimes sway with the tides. Lately, the bros have won and conventional wisdom will tell you that Die Hard is indeed a Christmas movie. Eyes Wide Shut? Welcome, but with reservations.

My personal “Yes it’s a Christmas movie” vendetta is While You Were Sleeping. The confirmation that this is the hill I will die (though perhaps not alone) on is of the unfortunately reductive sort. In my experience, other viewers seems all too appeased by considering Sleeping simply as a romantic comedy. But to consider it so simply is to ignore the central journey of Sandra Bullock’s heroine Lucy, and the kind of stories we revisit this time of year and why they resonate.

Admittedly, the holiday passes by the film’s midpoint before the romantic comedy genre beats really take hold. Through a series of charming mishaps, transit worker Lucy gets invited over the family of her comatose crush because they believe her to be his fiancé after she saves his life - long story, this movie is a little insane. What makes this more than “a movie that takes place at Christmas”? It’s an acute thing that has everything to do with Lucy’s circumstance and a wider understanding of what Christmas means for us in a cultural context.

It’s hard to escape that Christmas is family centric, whether our biological ones or the ones we create for ourselves. Bullock’s Lucy exists outside of those traditional demands, no one to call her own, no representational home to return to. Her job takes the precedence when she’s forced to work on Christmas day because her circumstance is easily exploitable so that others can enjoy the day with loved ones. In many ways, she is excluded from participating in what most of us take for granted at Christmastime.

When this family welcomes her without reservation, she experiences the holiday gathering with more reverence than those around her. She takes in the room, appreciative to be a part of a feeling that has eluded her since the early passing of her father and ever since. Perhaps it’s due to Bullock’s emotionally convicted performance (the one I readily argue is her best), but there is something here in the film’s DNA that we often forget about what Christmas means. Something that makes us aware of the people that a bustling and busy holiday makes us forget, both in their isolated situation and headspace.

For some of us, it’s a lonely holiday no matter how close our experience is to Lucy’s, and I’m not aware of a film that approaches this quite as well as Sleeping. Nor one as aware how Lucy’s lack of familial ties or connections makes her easy to cast aside to make things easier for those who do. For myself, this film made me feel closer to the ones I missed when locations and circumstance kept us apart - but imagine the Lucys of the world who spend this day of togetherness alone. This film probably acknowledges what Christmas means to them more than the jolliness of other more obviously Christmasy films.

What makes a Christmas movie isn’t how stooped it is in traditions or Santa-adjacent iconography, but something that embodies how we feel this time of year, how how the season draws out what ails us and how togetherness and compassion can heal that.

Would this classification disqualify even the most easily categorized Christmas films that care little for the holiday spirit, such as Love Actually or The Holiday? Maybe, and I’m at peace with that. But there is something about the spirit of Christmas, melancholy and grateful, that lives in While You Were Sleeping and the way Lucy is welcomed into unquestioning loving arms. She and the movie know what Christmas means deeper than we do.


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Reader Comments (9)

Is anyone going to write about Female Trouble?

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

Bullock is indeed so warm and loveable and it's easy to see looking back why she became so beloved wether you agree about the Oscar or not.

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Love Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary are necessary on my Christmas <3 <3

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJorge

Chris is right: The plot of this movie is insane. It only works because the performances are so warm and engaging, held tightly together by Sandra's oodles of charisma and her chemistry with all her screen partners. And this is totally a Christmas movie. Who questions that? It seems so obvious -- it couldn't take place any other time of the year, for reasons Chris lined out.

December 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

ugh this movie makes me miss chicago. love it but there's something very melancholy about the whole thing. i agree, this is peak bullock.

December 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

I like your analysis. Bullock gives us a character with a wonderful combination of longing and deep loneliness but is also warm, funny, and beautiful.

The only thing I try to change when I watch it is Bill Pullman. He isn’t good enough for her. But I can’t think of other actors of that era to recast.

And Peter Gallagher always makes me laugh.

December 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Bill freaking Pullman!!

December 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFR

thank you for this beautiful write-up

December 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

I totally agree! The family Christmas get-together scene is perfect. Sandra Bullock was everything to me when this movie came out.

December 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrent Holcomb

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