Joyeux Noël

Joyeux Noël

Rated 4.0

Based on actual events from the first year of World War I, this unexpectedly haunting French production builds an intriguingly complex vision out of its seemingly made-to-order combination of historical drama and anti-war film.

Writer-director Christian Carion gives us a richly detailed multi-character take on the spontaneous and transitory cease-fire that occurred between opposing sides in the trenches on Christmas Eve 1914. There are British and French troops lined up (and dug in) against the Germans in a “no-man’s land” setting somewhere in France, and Carion focuses on specific characters in each group while portraying this eloquently unofficial event, as well as its preludes and aftermaths.

Key figures include a Scotch clergyman (Gary Lewis) who has volunteered along with two young men from his village parish, and a half-disheartened young French lieutenant (Guillaume Canet) whose brusquely professional commanding officer (Bernard le Coq) is also his father. Crucial among the Germans are an ardently efficient officer (Daniel Brühl) whose background is Jewish, and a conscripted opera singer (Benno Fürmann) who adamantly refuses to separate military duty from artistic calling.

Brühl, Canet and Fürmann make particularly strong impressions, but Carion’s film is less concerned with specific individual sympathies than with the ominously deepening tangle of small, achingly human tragedies unfolding among the combatants, regardless of which uniform they’re wearing. Joyeux Noël ("Merry Christmas") may not be in the same league with such classics as Grand Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front, but it is a worthy addition to the still-growing list of memorably trenchant films about the “Great War” of 1914-1918.