Joyeux Noel 

(NR) 3.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott
(NR) 3.5 Stars Ed Johnson-Ott The cast of 'Joyeux Noel' During World War I, it was not uncommon for the trenches separating warring soldiers to be so close (barely 100 kilometers) that the men could hear the raised voices of their opponents. Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) takes us to the front lines on Christmas Eve, 1914, when British, French and German soldiers laid down their arms long enough to celebrate the holiday together, sharing songs and stories, food and drink — they even played a soccer game in the snow. Though writer/director Christian Carion created characters and situations for the movie, the core of the story is true. In an essay reproduced in the press notes, historian Marc Ferro states, “Yes, fraternizing happened on Christmas of 1914 and Easter of 1915. It was the first stirrings, a way to take advantage of the lull in combat. A muffled cry for peace, perhaps.” So what do you think? Was the communal celebration of the men inspiring or scandalous? Is it noble or traitorous for a group of soldiers to temporarily set aside a war? To no big surprise, Carion’s film sides with the soldiers. He also shows the aftermath. Joyeux Noel is a fascinating piece of work that manages to be moving without becoming maudlin. Some parts of the production work much better than others, which is likely due to Carion’s relative inexperience (this is only his second feature film). Regardless, I caught myself mulling over the story repeatedly during the past few days, a rare occurrence in my movie-packed life. One very good decision Carion made was to have the British, French and German actors speak in their own languages, which adds to the production’s sense of verisimilitude. He approaches the central event by focusing on a few people from each nation. For the German side, we meet a popular tenor named Sprink (Benno Furmann), who is serving as a private, and his partner, Anna Sorensen (Diane Kruger), who engineers a recital for nearby royalty in order to snag a few moments with her man. The United Kingdom is represented by brothers Jonathan (Steven Robertson) and William (Robin Laing), who eagerly sign up for the military, and Palmer (Gary Lewis), a local priest who enters the service as a stretcher bearer. By the way, the exceptionally gifted Lewis is easily the best actor in the film. As for the French, Audebert (Guillaume Canet) is a lieutenant whose superior officer is his father, Gen. Francais (Bernard Le Coq). As if that wasn’t enough, his pregnant wife is at the family home behind enemy lines. No need to explain how the unofficial truce comes to be. Suffice to say it begins with music — Christmas carols, to be precise. The holiday gathering of the soldiers is nicely presented, with a varied, credible mix of emotions on display. So how much of it really happened? Referring to the book, World War I, Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918, by Yves Buffetaut, Carion says, “As I was reading it, I came upon an extraordinary passage entitled “The Incredible Winter of 1914.” The author wrote about the fraternizing between the enemies, the episode of the German tenor applauded by the French soldiers, a soccer match, the exchange of letters, the Christmas trees, visiting each other’s trenches ... It really bowled me over.” So there you go. Except for this: There is a cat in Joyeux Noel that wanders from camp to camp, where he is known by different names by the different camps. In the movie the cat ends up imprisoned after the hostilities resume. In real life, it was accused of spying, arrested by the French government and executed. I intended to end this piece with a comment about the shooting of the cat, but I can’t think of anything to say.

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