Saturday, July 31, 2010

Christmas in July: Joyeux Noel (2005)

Based on true events but heavily fictionalized for maximum sentimentality, Christian Carion's Joyeux Noel (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar despite approximately a third of its dialogue being in English) makes some powerful points about the futility of warfare but undermines its own effectiveness by hammering them over and over again to the point where they become tiresome. It goes from graceful to cloying in the space of a few minutes, and unfortunately stays there for the rest of its running time.

It's honorable that Carion wanted to commemorate what's known as the "Christmas truce" of 1914, in which German, French and British troops on the front lines of World War I voluntarily laid down their arms to honor Christmas together. Carion focuses on one particular group of soldiers, all fictional characters, and grounds the story in a few personalities, including a German opera singer, a Scottish priest, a Jewish German commander and a French lieutenant. The singer's wife, also an opera star, gets permission to join him at the front to entertain the troops, and the music brings the various factions together to share wine, chocolate and a soccer game, and to bury their dead without fear of being shot at. It's a nice string of events that highlights the similarities among the men, after Carion effectively demonstrates how bloody the warfare is.

But then he lingers on every moment of the aftermath, as soldiers struggle with returning to combat, and superior officers discover what happened and issue reprisals. It's a good 30-40 minutes of underlining every obvious point repeatedly, and the goodwill Carion built up earlier kind of deflates. The acting is still solid and mostly understated, and the message is an important one. It's admirable that Carion decided to tell a different kind of war story, even if he made up all the details for dramatic effect. He just doesn't know when to back off and trust that his message will come across without hand-holding.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It brings even mortal enemies together.

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