Based on an amazing true story from World War I and nominated for an Academy Award, Joyeux Noël is a crowd-pleaser in both the best and worst senses. It may make you stand and cheer or swell with pride; and you may resent how unapologetically manipulative it is.
PG-13 for some war violence and brief sexuality/nudity
The movie tells three stories, plus the umbrella story that unites them.
The movie opens on three children reciting their school lessons, each a violently nationalistic sentiment that dehumanizes the enemy and instills hatred. This intriguing opener happens so soon and ends so quickly that if you’re late getting your popcorn, you might miss it.
Now grown, the three soldiers, one Scottish, one French, and one German, live within a hundred meters of each other, each in his own trench with his own army. The Scot signed up with his brother, excited to have something interesting happen in his life. The German is a noted opera singer. And I’m assuming for symmetry’s sake that the Frenchman had a backstory, although I can’t even recall it now.
Joyeux Noël conveys the boredom and horror of life in the trench, but see All Quiet on the Western Front (either version) or Paths of Glory for a better depiction.
To make a long plot summary short, come Christmas Eve, the men from three different countries very slowly and very cautiously put their weapons aside for a two-day cease fire during which they exchange presents and goodwill. The arrogance and classism of the higher ranks (who are, of course, not in the trenches) means that these men have more in common with each other than with their own generals. Or as we might say in America, poor whites have more in common with poor blacks than with rich whites. Class, it seems, is as valid a denominator as nationality, if not more so.
Director Christian Carion drives his point home forcefully and clumsily when he has a gussied-up, very high ranking priest condemn the impromptu cease-fire. The priest then begins a sermon calling for the extermination of every German, “old or young,” just seconds after denouncing Germany for targeting civilians.
Joyeux Noël is not a subtle movie. Nevertheless, the message is noble, moving, and worthwhile. I was more open to being moved by the humanity and sacrifice of soldiers than by many stories that try to tug at the heartstrings. I recognize that I was manipulated, but I accepted it with less cynicism than usual at the movies.
It’s tempting to ask “Why now?” The obvious place to look is in Iraq. And as tempting as it is to imagine common ground between Western soldiers and local insurgents, the parallels are not so clear. In this movie, the soldiers share the same religion and often the same language. A German soldier is married to a French woman. The French can mostly speak English and German. And everyone recognizes the Latin that the priest speaks because they’re almost all Catholics.
But that’s not what’s happening in the Middle East today. In a war where, rather than sharing language and religion, we are divided by religious boundaries, and even the roots of our languages are different, the hope in Joyeaux Noël seems naive and irrelevant.
That doesn’t mean Joyeux Noël isn’t a good movie. But anyone looking to deconstruct the film in terms of modern war is going to have to make a big stretch.