With logistics that must have been close to mounting a real war, the anti-war Joyeux Noel, based on well-known instances of temporary truces within fierce fighting during World War I, involved over a dozen regional and national European production entities, including Senator, TF1 and Canal Plus. Also shot in four countries with actors of three nationalities speaking in three languages, the film had its challenges.
Surprisingly, the result is far from an ersatz Euro-pudding glop, but a surprisingly homogenous, organic and satisfying broad-canvas burst of ambitious, engaging cinema. Still, some eager-to-please, familiar elements bleed through and this drama will be joyeux largely for older art-house patrons who will also appreciate French acting legends Michel Serrault and Suzanne Flon in their brief cameos.
Nor does the film pack the emotional anti-war ammo of classics like Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory or the more recent No Man's Land. But that is asking a lot. What it does do is recall the music-as-therapy message of Miramax's 2005 hit The Chorus.
Working with a conventional structure, writer-director Christian Carion introduces his diverse soldiers as war breaks out in 1914. There's Palmer (Gary Lewis), a bagpipe-playing Anglican priest in Scotland and his eager-to-fight sons; French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), a soon-to-be-father living near the trenches he will command; and the highly regarded German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), whose lover Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) is often his singing partner.
The monstrous war soon brings these disparate people and many others into nearby trenches in the north of France. Even Anna is among them, as she has convinced the German authorities to let her sing for the troops on the front for Christmas.
While the sight of Anna and Nikolaus cuddling in bed in a trench doesn't make for the most convincing of war scenes, their moment of glory at Christmas when they sing carols before the warring adversaries, who temporarily lay down their arms for the holiday, contributes to one of the film's most uplifting scenes.
Soon the commanders of each side are fraternizing, sharing champagne, chocolate, stories. Their underlings become friendly with the enemy and soon engage in a spirited game of soccer. Chatter among the men also involves talk of fine vacations and familiarity in foreign places that are now enemy territory.
The brief Christmas truce, based on real incidents and also delivering a surprise reveal about one of the characters being Jewish, reminds that even warring Western countries share important common cultures and mores that, beyond battle lines, unite them. But in today's world, filmgoers may also be reminded of a troublesome reality: the absence of such bonds between Western and Islamic societies.
Narratively, Joyeux Noel develops a number of story threads involving its Euro-stew of characters: Nikolaus and Anna struggling not to let the war separate them; Palmer enduring the deterioration of a soldier very close to him; simple French barber Ponchel (Dany Boon), yearning to return to his mother's home near the battle site; and Audebert, from the same village, eager to learn more about his wife's pregnancy.
But the pervasive tension is all about what will inevitably happen when the soldiers return to their trenches for the war at hand. Beyond its anti-war stance, the film, like Paths of Glory, also drives home a message that depressingly resonates today: those in power use those without power to wage their wars and die in the process.