Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

'You don't have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink.'

Christmas, 1914. British, French and German troops call an unofficial and completely illegal ceasefire and celebrate Christmas together. Being European, they also stop to play football (in the form known to Americans as soccer).

Over the Christmas holiday, several of us here at Billie Doux are posting reviews of some of our favourite Christmas films. I was too slow to baggsy my favourites (The Muppets' Christmas Carol and Love, Actually) but will be looking at Labyrinth shortly. Before that, though, I thought I'd offer this review of a rather different sort of Christmas film.

As holiday movies go, Joyeux Noel is... unique. It opens with children being taught to hate other nations and races, takes place against an historical backdrop of the virtual annihilation of a generation and ends with death, destruction and a foreshadowing reference to the Holocaust. Happy Christmas! But it is also, ultimately, a film about peace, love, friendship and goodwill to all men, which technically makes it the perfect Christmas film.

Here in Britain, the Christmas truce of 1914 is relatively well known - it's not common knowledge among every schoolchild or anything, but in the 1980s it was well known enough that Blackadder made a joke about it in Blackadder Goes Forth (he was never offside!). What I hadn't realised is that in France, few people had heard of it, which is partly why writer/director Christian Carion wanted to make this film. Like all historical films, it isn't completely accurate, but it is a reasonable representation of a remarkable true event, when troops during the first few months of World War One really did lay down their weapons for a footie match at Christmas.

The film is in French, English and German and follows two or three characters from a German trench, a Scottish one, and a French trench occupied in part by soldiers whose homes are just a little way over the German line. For the most part, it does a very good job of creating sympathetic characters from all three armies. You can sort of tell the writer/director was French - the psychotic character is Scottish, the deserter is German and the French general is the most sympathetic of all the higher-ups. But the Scottish priest and the German captain (who is a little stereotypically brusque at first, but reveals deeper layers as the story goes on, plus he's played by my favourite German actor, Daniel Bruhl) are fascinating, compelling characters, and the French captain and his batman's story emphasises the closeness of the French troops to their occupied homes, something that's easy to forget for those of us from further away.

The film's major misfire is its single female character, a Danish opera singer with a German boyfriend played by Diane Kruger. Her story is based on true stories of French girls sneaking into the trenches to meet their boyfriends, but the portrayal of this particular character just doesn't quite work - she's irritating, her boyfriend is fairly irritating and their involvement with the Crown Prince stretches credibility a bit. The opera singing also distracts from the core of the story, which is about cold, tired soldiers finding warmth and companionship in each other - the Scottish folk tune, although 'fake' in the sense it was written for the film, feels much more authentic, along with the use of traditional Christmas carols.

Quibbles aside, though, this is a beautiful film, literally (the trenches look much better covered in snow and Christmas trees) and figuratively. The performances are excellent, the gentle humour welcome but not overdone, and the story stays just the right side of saccharine (the final act, as the war returns, is a solid punch to the gut). If you don't feel at least a little misty-eyed by the end you might not be human. And it's all topped off with a fantastic score - Adeste Fideles, Auld Lang Syne, Stille Nacht, and that lovely faux-Scottish tune that'll get stuck in your head for a week...

Notes and Quotes

 - In addition to French, English and German, there's a tiny bit of Latin spoken as well, as the Scottish chaplain is Catholic (which is particularly convenient when he's saying Mass for three different nationalities, one of them mainly Catholic). This, of course, made me very happy.

 - The British and French trenches have historically accurate signs indicating where their allies are - the Scottish trench has a sign pointing to the French reading 'Froggy Land, 5 feet' while the sign in the French trench pointing towards the Scots says, 'Rosbif Land, 2,5 metres' ('Roast Beef Land, 2.5m').

Audebert: Faut pas vous sentir obligé d’envahir Paris pour prendre un verre chez moi (You don't have to invade Paris to drop round for a drink).

Palmer: I sincerely believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in the most important Mass of my life.

Audebert: Je vais vous dire moi, je me suis senti plus proche des Allemands, que ceux qui crient «Mort aux Bosches» chez eux bien au chaud devant leur dinde aux marrons. (Let me tell you, I felt closer to the Germans than those who cry, "Kill the Krauts!" before their stuffed turkey).

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

11 comments:

sunbunny said...

I adore this movie and I'm so glad you reviewed it! Every time I watch it, I end up bawling. I haven't seen it in a couple of years, but it's definitely on my watch list for this year.

I'll probably be posting Love Actually and Muppet Christmas Carol next week! Best version of A Christmas Carol ever.

CrazyCris said...

What a coincidence, I just ordered this movie off Amazon as a Christmas present for my dad! Each year I like to give him a new dvd of a Christmas movie, we really enjoy watching them together!

I LOVED this one when it came out in the cinema! The tale is lovely, the actors are great and the music is fabulous! I can't wait to see it again this Christmas.

Aside from the story, I really enjoyed the fact that it was trilingual (like Inglorious Basterds), makes it all feel more real somehow! I didn't know the story of the Christmas truce, and I studied in a French school so I can tell you it's not part of the curriculum when you study WWI.

CelticMarc: tu crois qu'elle a pensé à nous en postant ces citations en Français? ;o)

Juliette said...

Cris - yes I was ;)

CrazyCris said...

Tu es merveilleuse! Joyeux Noël mademoiselle! :o)

Juliette said...

Et joyeux noel a vous!

celticmarc said...

Heyyyyyyyy Loved this movie big time !!! Cool !

Cris sans H : hum, possiblement que poser la question c'est y répondre ??? Si jamais c'est le cas, eh bien....youppi ! Et
merci Juliette pour ce bel article.

I was going to write the next sentences in French, but I'll write in English instead, especially after the massive insanity that occurred in Connecticut, USA, today. A) War IS Hell, and this one was a butchery on a big scale. B) If I hear another "person" saying that guns don't kill but people do, I will, unfortunately, rip his head off with my bare hands....

Diane Kruger plays in this movie. Awesome actress.

celticmarc said...

Juliette,

Je viens de voir (lire) que tu l'as fait pour nous !! Ah quelle belle gentillesse de ta part ! God save the Queen !!!

Cris, In. baterds, which I adore BTW, is quadri-lingual !!!! Italian !!! Si, si !!

papa ! papa ! v'la les Boches !!! Cours pas Marie !!!!

celticmarc said...

sunbunny

a) they made a reference to Love Actually in yesterday's Glee (that script made me roll my eyes quite often)

b) you can NEVER go wrong with Muppets. NEVER. EVER. Period.

celticmarc said...

People,

just to be on the safe side, my Ingl. Basterds quote from the movie was just a quote. I've spent 2 extraordinary weeks a while ago in Berlin with extraordinary people.

My point is this : do not judge by History, big or small, nor by language, or skin color, etc, etc, etc... Two legged gems can be found throughout this Planet...and all over.

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Joyeux Noel tells an incredible true story. Camera sweeping down row of censors as they read letters with voiceovers of soldiers describing the truce is one of my favorite in the film.

ChrisB said...

Wow! I had never seen this movie; although, being fascinated by the First World War, I had heard the story. This is an absolutely stunning film that is now on my "must watch every Christmas" list.

There were too many wonderful scenes to list, but what really jumped out at me was that Horstmayer was a Jewish officer wearing the Iron Cross. How much that country would change in just a couple of decades.