Joyeux Noel


Review by Willard Manus

I saw fifteen films in four days at the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival. Among my favorites were BUZZ, a two-hour documentary by Spiro N. Taraviras about the 97-year-old screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides, and JOYEUX NOEL (MERRY CHRISTMAS), a French-language feature written and directed by Christian Carion which dealt with WW I. (The film is an Academy Award nominee).

A pointless, gruesome bloodbath which took the lives of millions of Europeans and Americans over a four-year period, WW I was fought largely on the ground by soldiers who lived for months and even years in trenches and bunkers infested with rats and lice. Brutal as it was with its incompetent generals sending waves of troops to their death in suicidal bayonet charges across no-man's land, the war was still not without its moments of compassion and humanity.

One of those moments, when French, German and British infantrymen voluntarily put down their arms in a brief truce on a night in 1914, is the inspiration for JOYEUX NOEL, which has cinematography by Walther van den Ende, production design by Jean-Michel Simonet and music by Philippe Rombi.

Carion opens his deftly-written and compelling story by showing three young school children--French, German and English--respectively reciting a jingoistic poem they have been taught in school in order to inspire them to take up arms against their enemies and fight to the death, all in the name of honor, glory and fatherland.

Flash-forward to 1914 when children like these have grown up and are confronted by the reality, not the illusion, of battle. Carion focuses on some representative characters caught up in the outbreak of the "war to end all wars." Three are Scots: two friends from a small town who have enlisted in the army to find adventure and excitement, and their idealistic pastor who volunteered as a medic. The others are a German couple (actually, she's Danish), both of whom are successful, Berlin-based opera singers; plus a young French artist whose commanding officer treats him with scorn, believing that only working-class stiffs can fight a nasty war like this one.

Carion's story unfolds in a series of short, tight, small-scale scenes shot on a wintry, snow-covered patch of earth on the French-German border. The men in the trenches have come to the realization that the war, which was supposed to be fought and finished in a few months, could drag on for months or even years.

Short of supplies, living in filth and mud, faced with the daily slaughter of their comrades, the men have begun to hate not only the war but their officers, especially those running the show from backstage sanctuaries stocked with steaks and champagne.

Death is always with the foot soldiers. One of the two Scottish lads is felled in battle and his mate suffers from crippling guilt after having abandoned him in no-man's land, where he slowly perishes from his wounds and becomes a frozen corpse.

The surrealistic aspect to the war is another ongoing theme. The Kaiser, for example, decrees that all German trenches should be decorated with tiny Christmas trees in order to boost morale. He also gives permission for the female opera-singer (played by the lovely Diane Kruger) to visit her husband, now a common foot-soldier. Once on the front-lines, she volunteers to sing on Christmas Eve for "the men."

Her voice, the voice of beauty and transcendence, floats over the barbed wire and foxholes, and is heard by Scots, French and Germans alike. Deeply moved, they repond in kind: out come bagpipes and harmonicas, voices are raised in unison, offering praise of the Nativity. Soon a 24-hour truce is agreed on, arms are laid down, the men gather on the killing-ground where they talk, play soccer, exchange cigarettes, show off pictures of wives, girlfriends and children. The impetus for this display of shared humanity comes from below; their officers oppose it, threaten them with court-martials and demotion, but the moral courage of these ordinary men wins out, the truce holds.

Only briefly, of course. After a day and a night of peace and fellowship, the men return to their trenches and become soldiers again. Soon the sound of Ave Maria is drowned out by the chatter of machineguns, the belching of cannons.