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Thursday, April 20, 2006

SHOCK AND AWWWW

Posted on Thu, Apr 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

***
Joyeux Noël
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: PG-13
Website: http://www.merrychristmas-themovie.com/
Release Date: 2006-04-21
Cast: Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriter: Christian Carion
WorkNameSort: Joyeux Noël
Our Rating: 3.00

Its basis in historical fact doesn't preclude Joyeux Noël (a 2006 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) from being a wish-fulfillment fantasy for our war-torn times. On Christmas Eve 1914, French, German and Scottish troops entrenched along the French countryside declare a spontaneous cease-fire. They sing songs. They share booze and chocolate. They show off photos of their loved ones. They do everything, basically, that the men serving under the German Paul McCartney and the British Paul McCartney got to do together in that music video 23 years ago. They play the pipes of peace – if only for a night.

"Why can't this happen more often?" you're meant to think as you watch the seasonal miracle unfold. Affection for the too-good-to-be-true (but true!) scenario is indeed inevitable in all but the most hawkish minds – and it's a handy thing, because writer/director Christian Carion sometimes seems determined to sacrifice that innate goodwill on the cross of his own clumsiness. In language and approach, his movie tends toward maudlin self-importance; technically, it's at best inconsistent. Though there are some highly attractive scenic shots, the one major battle sequence (which transpires very early on) looks shot on the cheap. And if you can swallow the contrivance that has a German soldier and trained tenor (Benno Fürmann) joined in the trenches by his Danish songbird girlfriend (Diane Kruger), you still have to bury your face in your hands when they open their mouths to sing, and you're confronted by the most awkward lip-syncing to be seen outside of a Toho monster flick.

This is not the best possible buildup to the unlikely yet essential moment when the soldiers of three nations – many of whom, we've already learned, would rather be anywhere but in those godforsaken trenches – decide to simultaneously lay down their arms. Inspired by the operatic lovebirds' overheard example, a Scottish bagpiper wafts a few lines of "Adeste Fidelis" into the air; the German tenor answers him back, the same way Ian Gillan and Jon Lord of Deep Purple used to swap riffs on "Highway Star." After that, all is cozy bonhomie. Such sequences typify the movie's gentle spirit and utter irrelevance to the present day: The lesson conveyed is that warring impulse is a lot easier to quell when each side worships JAY-sus – or at least agrees that he has the bitchin'-est karaoke catalog. "I'm Jewish," reveals the German lieutenant (Daniel Brühl of Good-bye, Lenin and The Edukators) during a break in the caroling. "Christmas means nothing to me. But I'll never forget tonight." (In case you're wondering, a spirited round of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" will not smooth things over with Kim Jong Il.)

Joyeux Noël gets better in its second half, as Christmas Day arrives and the men have difficulty remounting old enmities. They warn each other of impending artillery attacks, agree to deliver each other's mail and obey a lot of other niceties that accrue according to a lunatic's logic, proving that the obligations of peace can be as redeeming in their daffiness as the obligations of war are abominable. At times, Carion almost attains a photographic negative of Paths of Glory. Amid the treasonous outbreak of common decency, an animal even gets brought up on charges – though sadly off-camera. That kind of surreal spectacle is something Joyeux Noël could use a lot more of.

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