Directed by: Christian Carion
Premise: Set in the trenches of World War I, a Christmas Eve ceasefire ensues between Scottish, French and German soldiers.
What Works: Joyeux Noel is enjoyable even by those who do not observe the Christmas holiday or have deep feelings about it. Viewers who do have an emotional or spiritual investment in the holiday season will find those sentiments indulged here but those who don’t should find Joyeux Noel worthwhile viewing as well. Although the battlefield might seem like an unlikely place to set a story about the Christmas season, Joyeux Noel reveals it as the perfect setting and in the process the picture proves something valuable about holiday films. Movies about the holiday season often get a bad rap and deservedly so. Self-serving sentimentality is a tempting indulgence for creative people and for audiences. Viewers go to films seeking an emotional experience and actors and filmmakers often enter their craft in pursuit of capturing or manufacturing scenarios that will provide that emotional outlet. Emotion is always the strongest appeal and the pursuit of emotion, especially if it becomes divorced from other considerations, can lead to a slippery slope in which actors and filmmakers indulge sentimentality for its own sake. This usually has the opposite of its intended effect as viewers resist forced emotional reactions. Joyeux Noel does not do that. Like the best drama, it seduces its viewers by introducing vulnerable and interesting characters and gradually involving the audience in their struggles. This is done especially well with the three commanding officers who are torn between their orders to kill and the obvious humanity that is staring them in the face from across the battlefield. The other fault of holiday films is a tendency to avoid conflict. Many of them involve cuddly and cutesy situations in which nothing is at stake and none of the characters truly risk anything. This makes the sentimental tendency even more destructive because the emotion that the film aims for at its end is unearned. Joyeux Noel sets its characters in a quite literal hell hole. But it is in that challenging environment where love is absent and cruelty is the norm that the holiday and all it represents really stands out. And in that way, Joyeux Noel gets at what the holiday really means and provides an emotional experience that is embedded within an insightful story about human relationships.
What Doesn’t: How a viewer feels about Joyeux Noel will likely depend on his or her disposition. The film possesses a hopeful message about war and peace and its attitude toward humanity is the antithesis of films like Paths of Glory. More cynical viewers might have difficulty making the leaps that this film wants us to make, such as believing that two sides that have been trying to kill each other who even venture across no man’s land to begin with.
DVD extras: Interview with the director.
Bottom Line: Joyeux Noel is not only a good holiday film but also a worthwhile story about warfare and humanity. A film about trench warfare might not sound likely to capture the Christmas spirit, but this film does it far better than any number of network television holiday specials.
Episode: #369 (December 25, 2011)