On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers from Scottish, French and German regiments spontaneously laid down their arms and met in the middle of the narrow French field that separated their frozen trenches to celebrate the holiday together, sharing food, song, and photos and letters from home, before returning to their camps. Once word got out, the soldiers were branded cowards and traitors, their units disbanded and reconstituted on other fronts to continue carrying out the carnage that was World War I. This rare instance of fraternization is ripe with implications for war in general, this hopelessly confused war in particular (some historians see in the episode a prelude to the Russian Revolution of 1917), and the howling abyss between the powerful few who instigate hostilities and the masses drafted willy-nilly into fighting them. But writer-director Christian Carion, who dramatizes the episode in his new movie Joyeux ?Noël, is in this less for the implications than for the human-interest stories. As a result, what might have been a great movie is watered down into a nice one peopled with lots of down-home folk you’d really like if only they felt the slightest bit real. This is especially disappointing coming from the director whose equally sweet, but far more muscular, 2001 French sleeper hit, The Girl From Paris, about a young urbanite who transforms herself into a country farmer, nurtured our growing intimacy with characters whose appeal had nothing to do with how likable they were.
The cruel thing about war, as generations of children have learned from the fate of Anne Frank, is that it renders likability, virtue or intelligence beside the point. And as the English writer Pat Barker’s clear-eyed trilogy of novels about World War II shows with aching authenticity, the tragedy of war is its rude interruption of the already messily inconclusive business of living, while the loved (and hated) ones of those unlucky enough to die are left with their lives forever unresolved. Not here. The characters in Joyeux Noël may have been inspired by real-life people and events culled from surviving war records, but in the movie they sit flat on the screen, mainly because Carion, avid for international understanding and perhaps for international box office, wants us to end up loving them all — not to mention their far-flung relatives — to bits. Carion allows for a few wan conflicts: A sensitive French officer with little taste for soldiering finds himself at odds with his high-ranking officer dad; his German counterpart is a bureaucratic stiff who disapproves of consorting with the enemy; and a formerly patriotic Scots soldier seethes with bitterness over the death of his brother. But almost all human limitation is sent packing in the third act, by which time there has been an off-the-cuff opera recital by a heroic German tenor (played by Benno Fürmann and sung by Rolando Villazon) and his brave, radiant lover (Troy’s Diane Krüger, sung by Nathalie Dessay); a midnight Mass performed in Latin by a pacifist priest (Gary Lewis) who’s also a gifted bagpiper; and an inexorable accretion of goodwill between men of such unimpeachable moral fiber, you wonder how they made it down to Earth in the first place.
There are moments in Joyeux Noël when Carion catches the mad illogic of war — a cat that crisscrosses enemy lines is court-martialed and imprisoned for high treason (in real life, it was executed), while a faithful aide-de-camp who does the same so that he can take coffee with his mother ends up mistaken for a German by a trigger-happy Brit. But Carion is obstinately unwilling to supply more than the barest political context for his generic pacifism, and Joyeux Noël finishes up as no more than a garden-variety tearjerker, neatly packaged for Oscar candidacy. It’s not hard to see why the French chose this inoffensive weepie as their nominee for best foreign-language film, when they might have had Jacques Audiard’s far superior, if more difficult, The Beat That My Heart Skipped or Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings & Queen. But if you’re looking for a great film about honor between enemies in World War I, it may be time to dust off your copy of Jean Renoir’s enduring 1937 Grand Illusion, a masterpiece of decency and regret in the teeth of unimaginable savagery.
JOYEUX NOËL | Written and directed by CHRISTIAN CARION | Produced by CHRISTOPHE ROSSIGNON | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle Royal, Laemmle Playhouse 7 and Laemmle Town Center 5