War and peace, then war again
'Joyeux Noël' tells the story of a spontaneous truce during World War I.
'Joyeux Noël," set during World War I and an Oscar nominee for best foreign film, is yet another of this year's "inspired by a true story" movies. The story in this case is certainly inspiring. It's about how, on Christmas Eve 1914, troops from the French, Scottish, and German fronts dropped their weapons and walked out onto the battlefield near the French border to exchange gifts, greetings, and song.
Writer-director Christian Carion researched the little-publicized incident in French and German archives and embellished it with a few fictitious characters.
Leading up to the main event, he mixes brutal sequences of battle with scenes of eerie calm. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around, it makes perfect sense that these soldiers in their trenches would be primed for some respite. (Most had been fighting since that summer.)
Carion isn't a great visual stylist, and the battle scenes, not to mention the waiting-for-battle and recovering-from-battle scenes, are conventional. If one remembers a film such as Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," for example, this one pales in comparison. Carion is also a schematic screenwriter. The stories of an Anglican priest, a French lieutenant, and a pair of German singers (played by Diane Kruger and Benno Fürmann, but dubbed by Nathalie Dessay and Rolando Villazón) are intertwined rather too neatly.
A movie based on real events should have rougher edges or else run the risk of being taken for fiction. If audiences are hesitant to believe that the fraternization in this film really happened, it will be because of the storytelling, not the story.
That said, there is timely power in what we see. The trenches of these soldiers were often no more than 12 feet apart, with a no-man's land dividing them. When they emerge from hiding to shake hands and wish each other well, the full insanity of war hits home.
Carion is deliberately apolitical which, in a sense, is naive. He never convincingly brings up the issue of why World War I was fought. And the soldiers are, with the exception of a Scottish lad who loses his brother in combat, so well meaning and ecumenical as to court disbelief. But by humanizing the soldiers, Carion at least gives them a voice and a face. Some of them are fighting for a cause, but in personal terms there is more connecting them than separating them. This is why, when they emerge from the trenches and share photos of their families and girlfriends, the camaraderie is heartbreaking because we know it will only be a matter of hours before they are once again at each other's throats. Grade: B
• Rated R for some war violence and brief sexuality.