Joyeux Noel

Year: 2005
Director: Christian Carion
Writer: Christian Carion
Cast: Diane Kruger
It's a time of hand wringing over the fracturing of Europe. So many political and economic forces are at play to try and bring so many independent and fiercely traditional nations under the one umbrella that revolt, upheaval, even bloodshed are inevitable. No, not the lead-up to World War 1, we're talking about right now, and the loggerheads at trying to get everyone to adopt the EU constitution.

The Brussels bureaucrats could learn a few things from the producers of Joyeaux Noel, however. The list of companies that helped fund and produce the film reads like the United Nations. Companies from France, Belgium, England, Scotland and even Japan all collaborated to make it happen.

It's approaching Christmas Eve 1914. The propaganda that whipped up such rousing support for the war - convincing millions of young men it'd be like a holiday and they'd be exorcising Europe of demons - is draining away from the trenches as the snow closes in and the bodies pile up.

In one of the most amazing stories to come out of the war (but one that made perfect sense when viewed in human terms, as Joyeux Noel does), British, German, French and Belgian soldiers hear each other singing Christmas Carols at their respective positions barely a hundred metres apart.

How it came about is lost in history, romance and guesswork, but somehow, they made contact, and within hours, the soldiers from each army were standing in the No Mans Land that separated them swapping photos, stories of home, food, drink and song, then burying their dead together and playing soccer.

It's a fantastic idea for a movie and presents what Carion obviously considers to be several morals to the story. It's more natural to join with people than fight them. There's more of a gulf between those who fight and those who command than between soldiers of the same experience. And mostly, when we go to war, we're not scraping offensive mould off a block of cheese - we're murdering people. In this age where digital video warfare lets us convince ourselves there's no bloodshed and suffering, it's a more pertinent lesson than ever.

Carion takes the Titanic approach. The famous incident is the backdrop, and he paints the pictures of several fictitious lives in the foreground with which to tell it, taking the time to set each character up enough for the audience to invest some emotion in them.

It's a more effective approach than more impersonal documentary style it could have been handled with, and it mostly works well. It doesn't completely work well because there are a few stumbles. The most emotional parts (including the meeting of the soldiers in the battlefield, the Opera singer turned soldier Sprink rising out of the trench with a Christmas tree in his hand, the impromptu mass) could have been handled with less heavy-handedness. Carion wants you to understand the bits that are important to him, and he's prepared to cram them down your throat somewhat to make you agree. More subtlety where it was needed would make it a much better movie.

There's also one thing Joyeux Noel has quite a lot of that you don't expect; laughs. You wouldn't think broad comedy could be extracted from such a tale, but the script does so, and like the rest of the film, it isn't particularly subtle, standing out at times like a sore thumb.

There's a tone of simplicity that holds the movie back from being as good as it could be, but there's a strong message, some strong imagery and it's a story that deserves to be told, in whatever form.

A very smart move too from Hollywood babe on the rise Diane Kruger. After playing bimbo second fiddle in Brad Pitt vehicle Troy and Da Vinci Code-lite action flick National Treasure, she's returned home to Europe to do a smart drama in her mother tongue instead of slumming it as the love interest in a string of Hollywood thrillers.

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