Starring: Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Rolando Villazón and Diane Kruger
Written and Directed by: Christian Carion
Running Time: 1hr 56mins
NOMINEE – BAFTA Awards – Best Film Not in the English Language
NOMINEE – Golden Globes – Best Foreign Language Film
“All of us who made JOYEUX NOËL (Merry Christmas) were thinking about the soldiers who courageously fraternized. At the time, they were considered cowards. For me, they were neither heroes nor cowards. They were merely men who accomplished something incredibly human.” Director Christian Carion – emanuellevy.com
In 1914, during World War I, it was reported that after months of intense warfare and bloodshed in the trenches, a group of opposing soldiers gathered together and agreed to lay down their weapons and celebrate one peaceful night together on Christmas Eve. When I heard this, I have to be honest, it seemed hard to believe. How could a group of soldiers who had been shooting at each other achieve this kind of peace? How do they learn to mingle in a friendly manner with the people who have just killed their friends? War is an evil thing; how could this peace be arranged? Even though the movie JOYEUX NOËL was inspired by real events, I didn’t think the filmmakers could possibly convince me that this kind of truce could happen. I was wrong. Filmmaker Christian Carion’s movie is a beautifully told story that hits all the right emotional beats while demonstrating this coming together of opposing sides in a genuinely moving and very real manner.
JOYEUX NOËL is a war film like no other. It’s not a story about desperation and survival, and it’s not an exploration of the violence and fear that takes over the young and innocent soldiers’ lives. One side is not portrayed as the heroes fighting another, who are obviously the villains, as the script refuses to take sides among the soldiers. They are only pawns put in place by the politicians, the same politicians who sit in the safety of their offices and don’t get what being in the field is like. A soldier, Lieutenant Audebert, expresses this idea when he tells a General, “… you’re just not living the same war as me. Or as those on the other side.” The viewer witnesses men crossing the space between the trenches, only separated by 100 meters, being sacrificed by those making the orders from a nice, safe headquarters. The film is not as much about the battlefield as it is about discoveries made by the fighting men and their way of thinking toward the others.
Don’t get me wrong; the film doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war, as the story opens with an intense battle scene where the horrors of war are emphasized, and many lives are lost. But, as frightening as this scene may be, its purpose isn’t to shock the audience like the opening moments of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or some of the best moments in PLATOON. It’s there to enhance the film’s thematic elements. After all, it’s important to show these men who have been trained to kill their enemy blindly do so without much hesitation so that the self-realizations that come from the truce work on a stronger, more emotional level. This is a movie about humanity and how so many of the soldiers who fight against each other in war are all alike: scared men and sometimes kids who just want to survive, go home, and be with their families.
The key to the film’s success comes from the viewer’s belief that these soldiers would actually come together. As the film’s writer and director, Carion does an incredible job with this. It’s beautiful, magical and 100% believable. His use of music is pretty amazing as the Scottish soldiers fighting on the English side begin everything while playing their bagpipes. This is followed by a German opera singer singing Christmas carols before bringing a Christmas tree into the battlefield. The forward movement of the scene isn’t rushed, and because Carion lets the scene take its time to play out, it becomes incredibly effective.
The film has a wonderful cast of interesting characters, and the drama between them feels incredibly genuine. The fact that the dialogue is spoken in the three languages of the soldiers (French, German and English), adds an authenticity to the lives of the men who fought and died in what was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars.” The story concentrates on how they only desire to be human and get back home to their happy lives. During the truce, enemy soldiers exchange photos, stories, food, and drink. They discuss their wives and how much they miss them. These moments endear us to the characters and the whole cast handles it all with care. There are no long speeches about self-discovery and the fact that we are all the same. The viewer is allowed to witness this through the subtle performances that speak through emotion rather than exposition.
There is even the inclusion of one soldier, Johnathan, who doesn’t want to join in with the truce, which adds a piece of honesty to the story by making it all feel not so easy. Johnathan’s brother William, who was excited about joining the cause, is killed in the opening battle scene and he can’t find it in his heart to bond with those responsible. It’s a mostly silent performance with small bytes of dialogue that doesn’t make too much of the subplot, making it a more effective part of the film and allowing it to feel like a more genuine situation rather than manipulation within the storytelling.
Filmmaker Christian Carion has put together a wonderful little film that uses the war as a way to explore the themes of humanity and hope. The truce is strange because it’s only supposed to be temporary, which means these men who are getting to know each other will soon have to start fighting again, making it harder for the viewer to understand the emotions involved until the story finishes playing out. The script itself takes a very different approach to storytelling. Where most movies thrive on conflict between characters, JOYEUX NOËL concentrates on the characters coming together in peace. It is a heartfelt story about hope and humanity that deserves a larger audience and should become a Christmas staple.
Watch JOYEUX NOËL
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