World War I was considered "The Great War," with a cost of more than 14 million military and civilian lives, but it remains one of the more puzzling modern-day conflicts, lacking the obvious good vs. evil distinction attendant to its horrifying sequel. It's this ambiguousness that no doubt led to the Christmas Truce of 1914, during which pockets of French, German, and British soldiers entrenched along the Western Front temporarily laid down their arms to observe the birth of Christ with each other. And that temporary cease-fire has, in turn, inspired the Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noël, a tearjerking meditation on the peculiar practice of solving problems by slaughtering fellow human beings.
Writer-director Christian Carion uses an international cast to bring this story to life, opening Joyeux Noël with word of the war arriving in various locales. There's a pair of Scottish brothers eager to ditch their tiny town and do battle with foreigners, as well as Father Palmer (Gary Lewis, the dad in Billy Elliot), their solemn parish priest, who enlists as a stretcher-bearer. We also meet a German opera singer named Sprink (BennoFürmann, from Tom Tykwer'sThe Princess and the Warrior) and the soprano he must leave behind (Diane Krüger, National Treasure), a nervous French lieutenant named Audebert (Guillaume Canet, Love Me If You Dare), and Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl, Ladies in Lavender), a seemingly sourpuss German officer. These individuals will collide on the field of battle, though not in the manner they might have anticipated.
A stirring intertrench jam session on "Silent Night" gives Sprink the courage to venture forth into No Man's Land, inspiring the Allied forces to suggest a respite from the war, complete with Christmas mass, a little soccer, and a chance to bury the frozen dead. And now that the adversary has a face, the tentative yet welcome truce gets prolonged in surprising ways. Naturally, once the out-of-touch superiors (including the formidable Ian Richardson as a jingoistic bishop) get wind of this, they consider the good will toward men to be high treason, though one soldier is accurate when he observes, "To die tomorrow is even more absurd than yesterday."
Krüger, appearing up until now as little more than exotic arm candy (the German model was also the face that launched a thousand ships in the lackluster Troy), takes advantage of this opportunity to actually act, aided, no doubt, by the fact that she's working in her native language. An American interpretation of this episode probably would have found everyone speaking accented English, but Carion allows the three sides to converse in their mother tongues, while they occasionally employ English and French to communicate with their opponents.
Carion elicits thoughtful performances from most of his cast (except perhaps the overacting Fürmann), including Palmer as the priest embracing his natural inclination to minister to all of God's creatures, as well as a quick cameo from French great Michel Serrault (La Cage Aux Folles) as the owner of the occupied land.Joyeux Noël's broad focus unfortunately doesn't allow anything beyond the most cursory character development (the up-and-coming Brühl's character is frustratingly intriguing), though the Everyman vibe is certainly compatible with the argument that your enemy is usually just like you.
Joyeux Noël's script is understandably a little mawkish considering the subject matter, making the occasional flashes of sarcasm most welcome. (In response to Horstmayer's description of life after occupation, Audebert dryly replies, "You don't have to invade Paris to drop 'round for a drink.") Jean-Pierre Jeunet's very perfect A Very Long Engagement is too fresh in the memory to laud the look of Joyeux Noël, but the film is resourcefully shot, with the drab colors of WWI saturating the screen. And the operatic bits are lovely, though the lip-synching is less than successful.
Joyeux Noël did not win the Foreign Film Oscar this year (that honor went to South Africa's Tsotsi, also opening soon at the Little), but it did invoke flashbacks to France's 2004 submission, Les Choristes. Both are sappy and heavy-handed, but while Les Choristes made me want to sock every French orphan that crossed my path, Joyeux Noël pushed the correct buttons in the proper order. Or maybe the escalating body count over in the cradle of civilization has made me particularly mushy. Either way, it's April, and I've been humming Christmas carols for a couple of days now.
Joyeux Noël (PG-13), directed by Christian Carion, opens Friday, April 7, at the Little Theatres.