Jeer de Fête
Sappy Plotting And Cloying Filmmaking Pollute Potential Poignant Human Story
Joyeux Noël is the hardest kind of movie to form a strong opinion about, so consistently do its images fail to take hold as they slowly march across the retina. It feels less like a cinematic experience than it does a particularly unproductive session of channel surfing; you don’t hate the Hallmark-esque, holiday-themed costume drama you’ve somehow settled upon so much as you hate yourself for not changing the channel. Unfortunately, as with many movies of its familiar subject matter, light tone, and glossy production values, Noël may quite possibly sell more than a few tickets among two demographics: history buffs and that specific subset of senior citizens who mistake all foreign-language movies for art movies. Only in that director Christian Carion seems to have intended Joyeux Noël to make a grand statement to a much wider audience can it truly be judged a resounding failure.
The bulk of the movie unfolds on Christmas Eve of 1914, within and around the World War I trenches dug by Scottish, French, and German troops. A few characters express enthusiasm for the conflict, cheered that something momentous has finally erupted in their lifetime, but most everyone is beginning to comprehend the Great War’s brutal senselessness.
Against this backdrop we’re introduced to Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger), a first-rate Danish soprano intent on organizing a Christmas Eve concert, to be performed by her boyfriend, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a famed tenor rendered a lowly German grunt by conscription. Sörensen gets her way, but her plan to shelter Sprink from danger goes awry when he insists that they return to the front to perform for the troops.
Late on Christmas Eve, the pair arrive at the trenches overseen by Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl, of Edukators fame and Ladies in Lavender shame). Over Horstmayer’s objections, Sprink leaps out of the trench and breaks into song. From here, it’s all Christmas magic: dozens of Christmas trees (apparently just waiting for some brave soul to jump into the line of fire and start crooning) appear along the lips of the trenches; Scottish soldiers brandish bagpipes and begin serenading enemy combatants; a priest leads the faithful in Christmas services; troops and officers on all sides put down their weapons to exchange pleasantries (and the occasional bar of chocolate); a wallet lost during combat is returned to its rightful owner; and, above all, everyone knows the exact moment to stand up and make merry music without interrupting or drowning out anyone else.
While based on a true story, Noël always eschews realism for absurd levels of exaggeration and oversimplification, managing to be both breezy and insulting at the same time. That’s a shame, because there’s a valid and extremely pertinent political point buried here—namely that, through basic human decency and common sense, everyday folk, with a little help from bougie opera-types, are able to make peace with their fellow man in ways that money-and-power-hungry politicians and military planners are not. It’s a point that Carion voices intentionally, given that Noel opens with a prologue positing that nationalism is taught in the classroom and that, in his movie as in real life, his story ends with hostilities resuming and many of the armistice’s key players severely penalized by the powers that be for their day of peace.
Unfortunately, it’s here that Carion’s flimsy storytelling trips him up the most. His reliance on one-dimensional characters and a pat, coincidence-heavy narrative ultimately drown out any philosophical points and place the movie’s thematic focus not on the goodness of the common man, nor even on the strength of the human spirit, but rather on good ol’ Christmas magic of the Charlie Brown and Snoopy variety.
And although Carion can’t be held responsible for the overseas distribution of the movie he turned in, even in this pandering objective it falls short, since those interested in a sappy Christmas story aimed at adults are less likely to file into theaters for such fare in early-to-mid-spring than they are in, say, December. That marketing blunder will probably keep the senior set away, which pretty much just leaves the history buffs as Noël’s potential audience.
Let us know how it goes, guys; you can find the rest of us on our couches, trying to break away from one of those Flavor Flav-era Surreal Life marathons that suck us in every time—taking solace in the fact that, if only relative to cinematic blanks like Joyeux Noël, it’s time well spent.