Christmas movie review: Joyeux Noel

16 December 2011

Written by: Mary-Lou Ciampa

A French lieutenant and his Scottish and German counterparts meet in no-man’s land in Northern France on Christmas Eve 1914 and agree to a temporary cease-fire.

It’s triggered by the Scots’ rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, when a German soldier, only metres away, scrambles out from the trenches and unexpectedly joins in with the Latin version ‘Adeste Fideles’. It allows all parties respite from the war; time to bury their dead, share in cross-cultural festive rituals, engage in some inter-national football and reclaim their humanity. To ‘forget about the war’, if only for a couple of days.

And what’s more, it’s based on true events.

In its opening scenes, Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) reminds us that it’s at school that we prepare our soldiers. A French, a Scottish and a German child are shown in turns reciting pledges of national pride and a call to arms to exterminate the enemy, establishing from the get-go the parallels between each of the three nationalities represented in the film.

In contrast to the gaiety and frivolity of your typical Christmas time flick, Joyeux Noël  achieves a more sombre tone. Depicting details of the Christmas Truce of the First World War, this 2005 film by Christian Carion is a more subtle number than a Hollywood version would be. It is a bittersweet amalgam of historical facts Carion gathered over 14 years of scouring war documents and talking to experts.

One example, the very unchristian-like sermon given by the bishop towards the end of the film – imploring the British troops to kill every one of the Germans as they are not ‘children of God’ – was taken directly from a similar speech given in Westminster Abbey during this time. Another fact is that the German troops were sent Christmas trees, to be placed every five metres along the frontline.

Carion, who wrote and directed the film, thoughtfully shaped his characters – an earnest Scottish parish priest turned stretcher-bearer (played by Gary Lewis), a goofy French barber conscript (Dany Boon) and a conflicted, famous German opera singer (Benno Fürmann) among many others at the frontline – to both incorporate elements from his bounty and to help the viewer see the story from various viewpoints, all the while enriching the experience.

The cast is rounded out by Guillaume Canet as the French Lieutenant Audebert, waiting to hear news of his first child’s birth; the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon is charismatically played by Alex Ferns; and Daniel Brühl is the uptight German Lieutenant Horstmayer. Diane Krüger, as the Danish opera-singing companion to Fürmann’s Sprink, is the only significant female in the film. Although lip-synching to Natalie Dessay’s vocals, her interpretation is evocative and very believable.

French film-maker Claude Lelouche, after watching the film at Cannes, said: ‘There are three types of films: those that make you laugh; those that make you cry; and those that give you goose bumps. Joyeux Noël gives you goose bumps.’ De rigueur for a Christmas story, really.

The occasional strains of bagpipes contributed to the goose bump factor for me. That, and the punctuating silences. Lelouche called this film ‘a lesson in simplicity’. There are no montages here accompanied by soaring musical scores.

This war ‘where the shovel is more important than the rifle’, signals the introduction of trench warfare. In such close proximity are they, one can hear the clock alarm ringing in the enemy camp. The enemy, rather than an amorphous mass, becomes individual human beings, with needs and emotions just like their own, missing loved ones and home. The soldiers come to realise they have more in common with those across no-man’s land than with their compatriots back home. They overcome their suspicions and apprehensions, put down their weapons, venture over the trenches and unite for a few hours.

Still, fraternisation is tantamount to treason and carries with it the death penalty. It is in censoring the letters home that the authorities learn what took place.

But history tells us that the war doesn’t end there, so we know the truce doesn’t last. By this stage, you can’t help but wonder: having met the enemy face-to-face, shared champagne and sung carols, how do the soldiers then return to the dirty job of war?

With French, English and German sections, viewing this film means that, unless you are trilingual, you will have to read the subtitles at some stage. Not a concern for those used to watching foreign films, but some people do baulk at that.

This is a worthy Christmas movie, picking up on familiar messages at this time of year. That family and friends are the most important things in life; and that Christmas is a special time of year when extraordinary things can happen.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

upstart is reviewing Christmas movies in December 2011. Full details for contributing and a list of Christmas movie reviews are on this page.