Joyeux Noel (2005) / War-Drama
aka Merry Christmas
MPAA Rated: R for violence and brief sexuality
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Benno Furmann, Diane Kruger, Dany Boon, Gary Lewis, Daniel Bruhl, Alex Ferns, Steven Robinson, Lucas Belvaux, Bernard Le Coq
Director: Christian Carion
Screenplay: Christian Carion
Review published March 3, 2006
Based on a reportedly true story, Joyeux Noel (also known as Merry Christmas) tells of a cease-fire between the regimens of three warring countries, England, France and Germany (Prussia) on Christmas Eve of 1914 during WWI near Prussian-occupied France. For a night of solace and celebration, these war-weary men put down their rifles, literally, and actually began to fraternize with one another, despite the fact that they had been out to kill as many of each other as they could mere hours before.
Joyeux Noel is a simple but very emotionally compelling story with the overriding theme that despite whatever the reasons for countries to battle, the participants in the war have far more in common than their differences. As depicted in the film, their reasons for hating one another stems primarily from government propaganda, disseminated also through agents in the clergy, causing the soldiers to believe they are fighting on God's side for good over their evil enemies.
Several characters are featured prominently, mostly the leaders of the fighting troops, who must keep the peace as the soldiers mingle with one another. Just one flare up and it could all end in a bloody tragedy, and the tension underneath the good will is evident throughout. This makes what the men are able to put aside for some rare camaraderie all the more remarkable, not to mention the pre-existing language barriers and national pride in the way.
Joyeux Noel is sumptuously presented by Belgian cinematographer Walter van den Ende, who filmed the critically-acclaimed war film, No Man's Land, to lasting success. Superb costumes and period art direction also contribute to the overall flavor. However, most impressive is the ease by which writer-director Christian Carion (The Girl from Paris) brings this ambitious multifaceted story together, supporting dialogue for three different languages, understanding the positions behind the three countries' interests (reportedly, Clarion is a World War I expert in his own right), and their respective attitudes.
The character development is very well-handled, as this all could have felt unremarkable if not for us actually caring about the livelihood of certain key people. Especially good is the dubbing in of the singers, with gorgeous singing provided by Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon. Kruger (National Treasure, Wicker Park) and Furmann (The Princess and the Warrior, The Order) do a commendable job in convincing lip synchronization; it's hard to tell they aren't the actual performers of these pieces.
However embellished the events of the actual film may be from what really may have happened on that Christmas of 1914, Joyeux Noel manages to sidestep the traps of becoming too schmaltzy or overly manipulative through its honest characterizations and a good sense of the predominant perspective of Europe of the times. We buy into the notion that men sworn to wipe out the very existence of the other can, and should, look beyond the uniforms into the hearts of each other, and realize that underneath, we're all pretty much made of the same stuff. Beyond the story contrivances and loose interpretation of historic events, Joyeux Noel manages to become an uplifting film about the spirit of Christmas and brotherly love among men that are far from kin.
©2006 Vince Leo