Love, laughter and loneliness are all part of life during the Holidays, like it or not. In the third instalment of our Advent Calender series, writer Lucy Cowburn takes a look at the bitter-sweet The Apartment, and contrasts it with It’s a Wonderful Life to reveal an all-together less saccharine portrait of festive melancholia.
The Apartment is the story of C.C. Baxter, a low ranking employee at an insurance firm who hopes to further his career by lending out his flat to the company’s managers- and their mistresses. The trouble starts when Baxter discovers that one of these mistresses is his crush, Fran Kubelik. It’s a great love story, because it’s not one that can be resolved in the film’s running time and director Billy Wilder doesn’t even attempt to close off the narrative. More than this, though, it’s the only Christmas film I’ve seen that honestly deals with just how crushingly lonely the holidays can be.
The idea of helping a lonely person have a lovely Christmas is actually a fairly common trope in holiday films. But these films all seem to suggest that the loneliness stems from physically being alone and that inviting an old widower to dinner will make him forget his beloved dead wife. The Apartment doesn’t take this approach. Once dumped, Miss Kubelik attempts suicide on Christmas Eve- this might sound a bit It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s not at all. There is no benevolent force to intervene, the universe is utterly indifferent to whether Fran lives or dies. She is saved by chance.
But it’s the kindness of both Baxter and his neighbours that save Fran; they have no real obligation to help her and only do so because it’s the right thing to do. What follows this is the story of two terribly lonely people getting along together the best they can.
The Apartment is a brutally honest film; Christmas can make you feel like crap (especially the chronically single). But, in the end what’s left is a realistic sense of hope that people will look out for each other. Things are not magically better either for Fran or Baxter, but they becoming so. Added to that, it’s the most wickedly funny film about suicide that I’ve ever seen.